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Potential Agents of Bioterrorism

Updated on July 1, 2013

Bio-Terrorism – A Threat for the Mankind

Bio-terrorism, or the use of biological agents to kill humans, animals and other living beings during war, is considered to be the most serious threat to life on earth. In comparison to chemical weapons, biological weapons can be designed economically and easily and the detection of these weapons is very difficult. Various forms of biological weapons have been used even centuries ago. A brief idea about the history of the use of biological weapons is provided in the hub – Biological Weapons: Could Smallpox Be Used as a Weapon?

Unfortunately the number of countries involved in the synthesis of biological weapons has increased. Research in this line will lead to disastrous affects when such weapons are handled by wrong persons. The primary focus of this article is to discuss about various agents which have the potency to act as biological weapons

The Components of a Biological Weapon System

There are four main components in the biological weapon system which are:

  • Payload – It is the biological agent itself.
  • Munition – As these agents are very infective, they have to be carried in a well protected manner to the site of action. The munition helps in the safe transportation of the agent and maintains its potency during the delivery of the agent.
  • Delivery system – Many agents like missiles or vehicles like boat, aircraft, automobiles, etc, can be used for the delivery of the biological agent.
  • Dispersion system – A proper dispersion system ensures that the biological agent is properly distributed across the desired area. Generally, methods like contamination of food or water, aerosol sprays, etc are used.

What makes a biological agent a biological weapon?

In order to function as an efficient biological weapon, a biological agent should have the following properties:

  • The agent should be highly infectious with short incubation period so that it shows its effect very soon. It should be infective even in low doses.
  • The detection of the disease and the source of the disease should be difficult to identify. This will make it difficult to detect the disease outbreak as a bioterrorist attack.
  • Mass production of the agents should be possible. Ease of storage, weaponisation and stability during distribution also determine its efficacy.
  • The desired effects like disease or death should be consistently produced for a long duration of time.
  • While designing such weapons the treatment options and diagnostic tools available with the target population are always to be kept in mind.

Classification of Biological Agents

Biological agents have been classified into three categories depending upon their efficiency to act as biological weapons.

Category A contains the top priority biological agents. They pose a serious threat to the national security and can lead to huge mortality. They can be easily dispersed and transmitted from one person to another. Some of the agents under this category along with the diseases caused by them have been mentioned below:

  • Bacillus anthracis causing anthrax
  • Variola major causing small pox
  • Clostridium botulinum toxin causing botulism
  • Yersinia pestis causing plague
  • Francisella tularensis causing tularaemia
  • Filoviruses which cause diseases like Ebola hemorrhagic fever and Marburg hemorrhagic fever, etc.

Category B agents are of the second highest priority as they cause low mortality and moderate morbidity. They cannot be easily dispersed. The focus of the public health is to enhance the diagnostic tools for the detection of these agents. Some of the agents under this category are:

  • Coxiella burnetti causing Q fever
  • Burkholderia mallei causing glanders
  • Burkholderia pseudomallei causing Melioidosis
  • Alphaviruses which cause diseases like, Venezuelan encephalomyelitis, Eastern and Western equine and Encephalomyeliti
  • Staphylococcal enterotoxin B
  • T2- Mycotoxins
  • Food or waterborne pathogens including salmonella species, Shigella dysenteriae, Vibrio cholerae, E coli, etc.

Category C agents include new pathogens which can be used for mass destruction after modifying their genome through genetic engineering. Some of these agents include:

  • Hantavirus
  • Nipah virus
  • Tick borne hemorrhagic fever viruses
  • Tick borne encephalitis viruses
  • Multidrug resistant tuberculosis
  • Yellow fever - discussed in the presentation on viral hemorrhagic fevers


Anti animal and anti crop bio-weapons are equally harmful and can lead to huge economic losses. Gone are the days when the effects of war used to exist for a short span of time. Now-a- days, the repercussions of war are quite long standing and effect gets carried over generations. It is inhuman to use biological weapons and affect God’s beautiful creation, “life on earth”. Stringent laws are made against the use of biological weapons, but unfortunately, many countries are making them secretly. We have already damaged life on earth through environmental pollution. It is high time that we recognize the value of life and say a strict “No” to the use of biological weapons.

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