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Bio-Terrorism: When Microbes Become a Threat to Human Existence Research Paper

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Updated: Jul 27th, 2022


This article is dedicated to bioterrorism that implies devastating attacks using biological agents that may cause highly serious damage to human health in order to threaten people and pursue specific goals. Although bioterrorism is known from ancient times, its threat requires particular attention in the present day as more and more pathogens that may be used as a weapon are being discovered. Thus, the major purpose of this article is to raise people’s awareness of this phenomenon on the basis of specialists’ reliable researches, informing about its history, basic biological mechanisms, biological agents’ clinical manifestations, and what should be done in this sphere to provide a more effective response.

In general, due to the cooperation of scientists, policymakers, and public agencies across the globe, the international community has recognized the potential of biological weapons and is prepared for the majority of threats. However, with the discoveries of new pathogens and new ways of their application for terroristic purposes, knowledge should be constantly updated.


Over the last several decades, global events have indicated that biological warfare and its considerable threat is an inevitable harsh reality. Bioterrorism implies the use and dissemination of various biological warfare agents (BWA), including viruses, bacteria, fungi, rickettsiae, and biological toxins, by all types of groups, official states, and military or political actors, motivated by religious, ideological, and political objectives in order to cause panic and terror (Foxell, Jr., 1999). It is generally based on microbiological processes, mainly on the ability of bacteria to produce toxic proteins and antibiotics to kill other bacteria competing for resources.

A particular threat of bioterrorism for people is determined not only by its mass destruction but also by the inability to control the spread of BWA and its unknown impact on populations in the future. That is why it is highly important for an international community to be prepared for it. In addition, the successive outbreaks of resurgent and newly recognized pathogens that may be used as hazardous agents in bioterrorist attacks indicate the necessity of improvement of public health management and control over highly infectious diseases. In general, as a use of infected samples and microorganisms to cause panic in populations, bioterrorism is known from ancient times, currently remaining one of the major threats to human existence that requires the immediate response of almost all structures of society for its prevention and mitigation in the future.

History of Bioterrorism

As a matter of fact, people started to use BWA in ancient times. According to Barras & Greub (2014), “the fact of threatening one’s neighbours’ health by using biological technologies seems to be as old as humanity itself” (p. 497). However, the historical study of bioterrorism may be regarded as considerably challenging due to several factors. First of all, there is a lack of reliable scientific data concerning biological attacks committed in the past when microbiology was not as developed as it is now (Barras & Greub, 2014). Secondly, any available document related to terroristic attacks is affected by political manipulations and cannot be interpreted completely objectively. Finally, due to historical distance, the ancient cases of bioterrorism may be misunderstood by contemporary experts.

Nevertheless, the earliest records related to the use of biological weapons go back to the 14th century BC when the Hittites send rams infected with tularaemia to their enemies (Barras & Greub, 2014). In general, the use of vessels or arrows infected with different poisonous products extracted from the parts of animals or plants was a common tactic of warfare. Later, the cases of bioterrorism began to appear throughout history and across the globe.

In 1155, in Tortona, Italy, Barbarossa poisoned water in wells with human bodies (Barras & Greub, 2014). In 1763, Native Americans were infected by smallpox by British officers who intentionally distributed blankets from hospitals to them (Barras & Greub, 2014). In addition, the biological weapon was frequently used on the battlefield to spread panic and cause the enemy’s losses. However, the use of infected diseases by warriors frequently led to their outbreaks among the civilian population. For instance, the epidemic of the Black Death, bubonic plague, that has killed more than 25 million people across Europe, was transported by Genovese soldiers who had been attacked by the Mongols to Mediterranean ports (Barras & Greub, 2014).

The modern era of bioterrorism started in the 19th century when Louis Pasteur, Robert Koch, and their followers founded microbiology (Barras & Greub, 2014). Later, biological agents were used during World War I predominantly by Germany – traditionally, the animal feed was infected to spread bacteria and affect enemies. Despite the fact that the use of the biological weapon was prohibited in 1925, Japan and later the Nazis experiment with different agents to improve their attacks’ efficiency (Barras & Greub, 2014). In general, the examination of the history of bioterrorism is essential for the identification of common tendencies in order to elaborate on potential responsive measures in the future.

Biological Mechanisms Involved in Bioterrorism

As a matter of fact, bacteria may be regarded as a natural adept at biological warfare. Their ability to produce toxic proteins and antibiotics against other bacteria to compete for territory and resources constitutes the basis of bioterrorism. Proteins may be divided into bacteriocins and toxins that are differentiated according to their purposes. Thus, bacteria synthesize bacteriocins, toxic proteins, to kill their relatives as closely related strains of bacteria frequently compete with each other (Clark & Pazdernik, 2016). In turn, toxins are responsible for acting against higher organisms. Both lower and higher eukaryotes are involved in biological warfare by producing toxins and kappa particles (Clark & Pazdernik, 2016).

Toxins that cause the main harm for humans may be produced not only by bacteria but by fungi, plants, insects, and both invertebrate and vertebrate animals, as well. These biomolecules detrimentally impact other organisms by ingestion, inhalation, injection, or absorption. Toxins frequently affect the appropriate functioning of the nervous system and disrupt nerve impulses’ conduction and muscle contraction. In addition, they may damage cell membranes leading to irreversible disturbances in organs and tissues.

Clinical Manifestations of BWA

It goes without saying that for the population and experts, it is immeasurably essential to be aware of biological agents’ clinical manifestations to take necessary actions as fast as possible. In general, clinical features of intoxication and their severity directly depend on the agent’s type, dose, individual variation, time, and environmental factors. Symptoms may include elevated temperature, irritation of the skin, mucus membranes, and eyes, an acute flaccid paralysis of bilateral cranial nerve impairment, toxic shock syndrome, rapid decrease of blood pressure, and multiple organ failure (Balali-Mood et al., 2013).

On the other hand, the symptoms of BWA’s impact may be almost undetectable if they mimic the manifestations of common illnesses. Thus, additional symptoms that require attention, especially when the case of bioterrorism has already been reported, include sire throat, coughing, exhaustion, blurred or double vision, difficulty talking, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and confusion.

Potential Threats and Breakthroughs

In general, with the development of microbiology and efficient cooperation of scientists, health care providers, and policymakers, major breakthroughs in relation to bioterrorism were achieved in multiple spheres. In other words, a considerable number of states are aware of major biological threats and are ready to provide an adequate response to protect people and minimize negative consequences. For the majority of BWA, vaccines are currently available.

However, the main threat is constituted by the creation of new types of hazardous biological agents (Balali-Mood et al., 2013). In addition, one of the biggest problems that plague medical microbiology today is the rise of antibiotic resistance among the population and the related occurrence of “incurable” infections (Clark & Pazdernik, 2016). Thus, the adequate response to BWA should focus on the creation of novel antibiotics.

At the same time, there is a fear that these antibiotics will not be produced in the nearest future. That is why other measures, such as new technologies, including genetic engineering, have been suggested against bacterial infections. For instance, non-pathogenic strains are genetically engineered for bacteria to bind with them instead of mammal cells (Clark & Pazdernik, 2016). It is regarded as even more efficient than medication’s expensive creation and manufacturing.


People used infected samples and microorganisms throughout history to cause panic and defeat enemies. In the present day, bioterrorism remains one of the major threats to human existence due to a lack of control over microorganisms’ spread and unknown impact on population health in the future. Despite the availability of vaccines for the majority of BWA, further research should be focused on novel antibiotics due to the rise of resistance to existing ones.


Balali-Mood, M., Moshiri, M., & Etemad, L. (2013). . Toxicon, 69, 131-142. Web.

Barras, V., & Greub, G. (2014). History of biological warfare and bioterrorism. Clinical Microbiology and Infection, 20(6), 497-502.

Clark, D. P., & Pazdernik, N. J. (2016). . Biotechnology, 687-719. Web.

Foxell, Jr., J. W. (1999). Trends in bio-terrorism: Two generations of potential weapons. Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management, 7(2), 102-118.

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