Germs in the Arsenal

Article by Elton Cornell

During Senate subcommittee hearings in 1977, Army officials revealed that between 1949 and 1969, they conducted 239 open-air tests of biological agents on unaware soldiers and civilians. In September 1950, a U.S. Navy ship sprayed the pathogen Serratia marcescens toward the shores of San Francisco for a solid week. Subsequent testing revealed the pathogen had traveled more than 30 miles, leading to a sudden spike in pneumonia and rare urinary tract infections.

In 1951, the Army exposed African-Americans to the fungus Aspergillus fumigatus to determine if they were more vulnerable than whites to the infection.

In 1966’s infamous “Subway Experiment,” researchers dropped bacteria-filled light bulbs onto tracks in midtown Manhattan and discovered the microbes spread for miles.

In a 1968 report, the Army concluded that, “Similar covert attacks with a pathogenic disease-causing agent during peak traffic periods could be expected to expose large numbers of people to infection and subsequent illness or death.”

Since the Cold War was one giant death race, the Soviets were busy stockpiling their own caches of biological weapons. Together, the Soviets and Americans produced enough nasty germs and viruses to kill everyone on Earth several times over. In the 1920s, predating even the atrocities of Unit 731, Soviet authorities experimented with typhus, glanders, and melioidosis on live human subjects at the gulag on the Solovetsky Islands. In the 1970s, even though they had signed a pledge to discontinue bioweapons development, the Russians’ Biopreparat program employed an estimated 50,000 people.

Since humans are prone to error, this led to an accidental aerosol release of smallpox in 1971 that sickened ten and killed three. It also led to an accidental leak of anthrax in 1979 that claimed more than a hundred lives. It’s speculated that if winds had been blowing in the opposite direction, anthrax would have spread into urban areas and possibly killed hundreds of thousands. In a top-secret 1980s program ironically dubbed “Ecology,” the Soviet Ministry of Agriculture developed variants of livestock-killing diseases designed to be sprayed from airplanes over hundreds of miles.

Thirty years ago, after the lead Soviet scientist investigating the bioweapon potential of lethal Marburg virus died of the disease, authorities discovered that the variant taken from the man’s organs was more powerful than the original. The Soviet Ministry of Defense weaponized this new, super-deadly strain, which they called “Variant U.”

But lest you think it was only the Americans and Soviets, the U.K. conducted bioweapon experiments throughout the first half of last century and became the first nation to successfully weaponize biological weapons for mass production. British researchers also bombarded Scotland’s Gruinard Island with anthrax for more than half a century. Although Israel denies it, the International Red Cross reported that during the 1948 War for Independence, an Israeli militia released Salmonella typhi bacteria into the water supply of Acre, leading to an outbreak of typhoid fever in the port city.

During the Rhodesian Bush War (1964-1979), the Rhodesian government deliberately contaminated water along the Mozambique border with cholera. After the Persian Gulf War in 1991, Iraq admitted it had produced 19,000 liters of concentrated botulinum toxin, and loaded 10,000 liters onto military weapons. As far as China’s bioweapons program goes, it’s anyone’s guess. The country’s officials are masters of propaganda and secrecy, leading to the possibility that we may never be able to definitively rule out the idea of an intentional origin for this new coronavirus strain.

Biological Terrorism

Compared to conventional incendiary weapons, bioweapons are easy and cheap to produce — as well as difficult to detect. Not to mention a would-be DIY bioterrorist can take as many lives with a nickel’s worth of rogue germs as a government could with $10,000 in conventional weapons. The documentary Bioterror quotes Larry Wayne Harris, identified only as “a former member of a white supremacist group,” who explains how cheap and simple it is for ordinary citizens to acquire deadly toxins.

In an era of "weaponized" everything, talking about germs almost seems anticlimatic. Yet history always provides insights if one is willing to listen closely.

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