January 23, 2009

If I'd been blogging on September 17, 2002, I'd have blogged "Feces, dead horses, and fleas: evolution of the hostile use of biological agents."

This is an article by Emil Lesho, David Dorsey, and David Bunner, and I know I would have blogged on that date because it's in an old email file. Back in the days before blogging, I'd send out interesting things I found to a few select correspondents. I've so often regretted not blogging in the years before 2004, and I think from time to time I'll pull an old should-have-been-a-blog-post out of the email. This is really interesting:
Scythian archers in 400 BC and Hannibal in 190 BC were probably the first to "weaponize" biological agents. The former did it by dipping their arrowheads in feces or decaying cadavers; the latter, by launching pottery filled with poisonous snakes onto the ships of King Eumenes during the Second Macedonian War. Plague-infected cadavers were hurled into the fortifications of adversaries during medieval battles and during the famous Mongol siege of the Ukrainian city of Kaffa (now Feodosiya) in 1347.

Later, the development of the trebuchet, an enhanced catapult, made it possible to accurately launch several-hundred-pound loads of manure or large piles of bodies that previously had been too heavy. Although some authors believe cadavers were not competent plague vectors, the prevailing scientific establishment of those times lacked the epidemiologic sophistication to realize this. Biological projectiles had some strategic value--if only psychological--because their use persisted into the 20th century during the Russian Revolution, various European conflicts, and the South African Boer wars.
And consider the horrible Dr. Ishii:
Shiro Ishii, a Japanese Army physician who rose to the rank of general, epitomized physician involvement in the biological war effort. Ishii dreamt of "doctors in combat alongside the glorious infantry." "Alongside" implied offensively using biological agents, not caring for the wounded. Dr Ishii is reported to have offered chocolates filled with anthrax bacteria to children in the Chinese town of Nanking (Nanjing).... Authors credit Dr Ishii with having launched perhaps the most gruesome series of biological weapon experiments in history.

As many as 10,000 prisoners died as a result of having been fed, sprayed, injected, or bombed with a long list of biological and chemical agents, including but not limited to plague, glanders, anthrax, dengue, cholera, and tularemia. Prisoners were given seawater intravenously or horse blood in plasma exchange replacements or deliberately frozen to death to ascertain the effect of temperature on the various pathogens. To determine the effects of barotrauma, they were pressurized until, as one eyewitness put it, "their eyes ruptured and bled." At specifically designated research facilities under Ishii's purview, no prisoners were allowed to survive. If they survived the initial series of experiments, they were then "sacrificed" to determine the progress of the iatrogenesis.

Plague fascinated Ishii. He believed it held great strategic potential and so masterminded the flea bomb, a porcelain structure filled with plague-infected fleas and oxygen. Oxygen sustained the fleas during high-altitude releases, whereas porcelain required less heat and force to shatter during detonation, allowing more fleas to survive. The brittleness of porcelain and a secondary charge ensured that the shell turned to dust, leaving no physical evidence of spent munitions. About 15 million fleas were released per attack. Previously classified documents revealed that at least 11 Chinese cities were attacked with plague, anthrax, and paratyphoid.

From 1940 to 1942, as many as 700 Chinese civilians died because of direct attacks. More than 120 deaths resulted from the aerial dissemination of plague-infected fleas over the cities of Ch'u-hsien (Qu Xian) and Ning-po (Ning-hsien). Because of the indiscriminate nature of biological weapons and the limited experience militaries had in using such weapons, aggressors occasionally succumbed to the diseases that they were trying to inflict on their enemy. During a Japanese assault on the Chinese city of Ch'ang-te in 1941, Japanese forces incurred 10,000 casualties and 1,700 deaths as a result of biological agents.

ADDED: I've inserted some paragraphs into the text above. And let me connect those historical tales to the recent news that about al Qaeda and the plague.

23 comments:

John Burgess said...

Here's a BBC report saying the Persians used chemical warfare in the 3rd C. CE.

Maguro said...

The Japanese stuff sounds gruesome but ineffective as a weapon of war. If all they did was kill 820 enemy civilians and 1,700 of their own soldiers, their bio weapons program failed completely.

JohnAnnArbor said...

Note the Japanese only bothered to record their own casualties in the attack. The Chinese were treated as sub-human by them, like Russians by the Nazis.

There's an awful lot of denial in Japan about WWII.

Original George said...

Advances in genetic knowledge could be misused to develop powerful biological weapons that could be tailored to strike at specific ethnic groups, the British Medical Association has warned. In 1999.

The recent Algeria story would be much more frightening if someone was using biological weapons against al-Qaeda.

Balfegor said...

The Japanese stuff sounds gruesome but ineffective as a weapon of war. If all they did was kill 820 enemy civilians and 1,700 of their own soldiers, their bio weapons program failed completely.

Up to a point. It was also the foundation of much of our biological weapons program. Dr. Ishii was granted immunity in exchange for his research data, and apparently moved to the US to continue his work -- a Pacific theatre equivalent of Operation Paperclip.

traditionalguy said...

You have to respect a Scientist doing "pure" research. These noble men only wanted to relieve the human suffering caused to Japanese soldiers who were being required to Slaughter Chinese civilians in time consuming and physically hard ways. Have you ever had to swing a samurai sword or bayonette to chop to death all of your rape victims, thousands of times each week for three months? Nanking took three months, and that time and energy could have been better spent death marching American Army prisoners. That was one fierce clash of cultures: The United States Marine Corps vs The Empire of Japan.

JohnAnnArbor said...

It was also the foundation of much of our biological weapons program.

Turns out most of his research was useless (as well as sadistic and disgusting). We should have hung him with the rest.

There's a fascinating PBS show out there about the US bioweapons program. During WWII, it was focused on killing weapons (at the behest of Britain) to be used in retaliation for possible German attacks of the kind, but it turned out that Hitler was opposed to bio-weapons, believe it or not. After the war, though, it was focused on diseases that incapacitate, not kill. The idea was to incapacitate the enemy, with each stricken soldier requiring care and the resources associated with that care.

They actually did a few tests on volunteer contentious objectors (7th-Day Adventists, if memory serves). They got sick, as planned, after an airplane sprayed stuff a few miles away.

JohnAnnArbor said...

Frankly, it says something about Japan that they didn't hang Ishii themselves.

JohnAnnArbor said...

The one annoying thing about the PBS show was they basically made no mention of the Soviet program (once, in passing, I think) which was gigantic and is STILL scary, given the lax security at their facilities. When we unilaterally gave up bio-weapons in the '70s, the Russians replied they had no program of the sort, so had no need to make a similar move. Of course.

LarsPorsena said...

"The one annoying thing about the PBS show was they basically made no mention of the Soviet program .."

Yep, and it was (is) huge. Dwarfing the US program and continuing to be a real terrorist/environmental threat.
US was a cottage industry compared to the USSR's.

blake said...

Rememberances of blogs lost.

There's a castle-building game out there that allows you to launch diseased cows into your enemies castle with a catapult.

Seems a bit extreme to me.

David said...

The current world is so terrible that you have to retreat into the past?

Original George said...

The government's reaction was swift. Martial law was declared. Measures included blockades of villages and neighbourhoods, roadblocks, prohibition of public meetings, closure of borders and prohibition of all non-essential travel. Hotels were requisitioned for quarantines in which 10,000 people who may have been in contact with the virus were held under guard by the army.

Within two weeks, almost the entire population had been revaccinated. By mid-May the spread of the disease was stopped and the country returned to normal life. During the epidemic, 175 people contracted smallpox and 35 of them died.

--The response of Yugoslavia's Communist government to a smallpox outbreak.

In 1972.

Wonder if our country could respond as severely. BBC documentary "Smallpox 2002."

You only have to read a little bit about smallpox to get very scared. The weak strains only kill about 30 percent of those infected. The more potent varieties can kill up to 90 percent. And many survivors of either type can be blinded or have other permanent malfunctions.

JohnAnnArbor said...

And our friends, the Russians, turned smallpox into a weapon. Thanks, guys.

Tibore said...

"JohnAnnArbor said...
The one annoying thing about the PBS show was they basically made no mention of the Soviet program (once, in passing, I think) which was gigantic and is STILL scary, given the lax security at their facilities. When we unilaterally gave up bio-weapons in the '70s, the Russians replied they had no program of the sort, so had no need to make a similar move. Of course."


Yes. Ken Alibek (formerly Kanatjan Alibekov) wrote of his experiences and how the potential for utilization was still there. His book makes for some interesting, albeit scary reading. And in trying to remember him through Google :)  I tripped over a different Soviet-era scientist who also worked on biowarfare: Igor V. Domaradskij.

The stuff Alibek revealed, presuming it's true, was frightening. I need to find and read that Domaradski book to see what it says. This topic requires investigation by the NATO allies as much as the security of old Soviet-era nukes did. I'm not sure enough has been done to ensure the security of that old weaponry. On top of that, I'm not sure how much is known about many of the products they had; without knowing, you can't devise a counter to it easily. And that's the most frightening thing of all.

Glenn said...

There is a recent report tracing biological warfare back to about 1300 B.C. See Sick Rams Used as Ancient Bioweapons

Maguro said...

Up to a point. It was also the foundation of much of our biological weapons program.

I guess my point is that Japanese operations in China offered what would seem to be ideal conditions for bio weapons: High population density, questionable sanitation, undisputed control of the air, etc. The Japanese were completely ruthless in their methods and committed huge amounts of their relatively scarce resources to make bio weapons work. And yet, the program never had much of an operational impact. Bio-weapons are certainly scary and you wouldn't want to come across any, but I question whether it is possible to make them militarily effective.

JohnAnnArbor said...

Wonder if our country could respond as severely.

Public health authorities have near-dictatorial powers when it comes to containing disease. We haven't seen them in this country for decades, so I'm sure if something did happen, the public will likely be shocked by what can be done lawfully regarding enforced quarantine, etc. Given that one jerk with suspected virulent TB decided to play world traveler rather than follow public health instructions, the reaction next time could be pretty dramatic.

Crimso said...

"Advances in genetic knowledge could be misused to develop powerful biological weapons that could be tailored to strike at specific ethnic groups, the British Medical Association has warned. In 1999."

Actually, I inadvertently figured out what I think was a feasible means of doing just that around 1996. Inadvertent because my intent wasn't to engineer a biological weapon that would strike people with certain genetic components. Instead, I was trying to come up with a system that would use a virus to make certain tissues much more susceptible to the class of anticancer agents I study. In effect, greatly sensitizing cancer cells while leaving normal tissues relatively unaffected. Now, I think it would be irresponsible of me to go into any kind of detail, but I will tell you that I abandoned that line of research due to certain technical issues. Given enough time and money those issues could be resolved. It didn't take any thought at all to see how such a system could be converted into a pretty horrific bioweapon. In basic concept, developing bioweapons against our own (rebellious) tissues is no different than doing so for use against other people. Note the connections between chemical warfare and the genesis of modern chemotherapy.

AllenS said...

Two Ukrainians are manning the fortifications outside of the city of Kaffa, when one of them says:

"Do you think the Mongol's will leave soon?"

His friend responds: "Yeah, when pigs fly."

First guy: "Look out! Here comes one!"

Balfegor said...

The Japanese were completely ruthless in their methods and committed huge amounts of their relatively scarce resources to make bio weapons work. And yet, the program never had much of an operational impact.

I don't get the impression the huge resources were poured into operationalising bioweapons -- I thought it was almost entirely spent on facilities and research. Furthermore, given that the Japanese accidentally killed 1,700 of their own during an attempted battlefield use, I find it hard to believe that only 820 civilians were killed as a result of these battlefield uses. Indeed other sources give figures like 30,000 and 50,000 casualties. That seems more in line with what I would expect, although it's not nearly as targeted or effective as the nuclear devices we used on Japan.

Michael McNeil said...

Fortunately for the world population of earlier eras — at least as far as bioweapons are concerned — prior to the mid-19th century, propagated more or less unchanged from antiquity, the scientific consensus was that disease was caused not by tiny living things, microorganisms, invading, eating, poisoning, and thereby killing us from within, but rather by things like bad air (“bad air” = mala aria = malaria).

Thus up until the 1850s the conventional medical wisdom for forestalling disease was to close up one's house tightly at night (no matter how sweltering or stuffy it might be) to keep those oh-so deadly vapors out. (Benjamin Franklin, who insisted on keeping his windows open, had some tart things to say about this medical convention, though it wasn't known to be erroneous at the time.)

Since the theoretical basis for the medical science of the day didn't include a conception of infective disease as we know it, it likely delayed systematic efforts to develop or enhance infectious diseases as deadly agents in war, possibly saving countless lives during the centuries of bitter warfare since.

On the other hand, had some medical genius come up with the modern notion of disease back in ancient times (perhaps when the Greek scientific revolution was just getting started during, say, the 6th century BC) that might have saved many, perhaps millions, of lives during the millennia since. Imagine how history would differ had effective countermeasures been able to be taken to halt or minimize some of the disastrous epidemics of history; consider the Periclean “plague” in Athens during the Peloponnesian War (5th century BC), Constantinople's “Black Death” of the 6th century AD (Justinian's reign), or the European Black Death we better recall (14th century) just for starters.

jeff said...

delightful. I, for one, will sleep well tonight.