By Dr Ananya Mandal, MD
The two major biological threats that are faced in biosecurity include:
Naturally occurring infectious diseases such as avian flu
Biological weapons that are in the hands of states and terrorist organizations
These threats pose a challenge in national safety and providing protection against these them forms the basis of biosecurity.
Infectious diseases have affected large populations throughout human history. Although these diseases are naturally occurring, they can cause more devastation than warfare.
Some of the major pandemics or outbreaks of disease that have affected large parts of the world across geographical boundaries include the Black Death or bubonic plague in the 14th Century and the spread of Spanish flu in 1918-19. Worldwide, each of these pandemics killed tens of millions of people. Today, infectious diseases that pose a threat to humans include diseases such as cholera, avian flu, yellow fever, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS and malaria.
Since the 1960s and 70s, the widespread use of antibiotics and vaccines as well as early detection and surveillance of critical infections has eliminated several of the major infectious diseases such as measles and polio. Over the past few decades, however, infectious disease has staged a comeback, especially certain infections such as tuberculosis. Tuberculosis has developed resistance to commonly used antibiotics making it a biosecurity threat. In addition, previously unknown and “emerging” infections that have developed across the world include Legionnaire’s disease, Lyme disease, Sin Nombre variant of hantavirus, hepatitis C, SARS and new strains of influenza. Most of these diseases have originated in Europe, North America, and Japan and not from the developing nations. International trade, travel, and immigration have enabled infections emerging in certain areas to spread all over the world.
Emergence of biological weapons
Terrorist organizations and the military have used infectious diseases as weapons throughout the history of mankind. Since World War II, however, no state has used a biological weapon in battle. In 1915, the League of Nations negotiated the Geneva Protocol that banned the use of both chemical and bacteriological weapons but permitted their continued production, and stockpiling. In 1969, the United States, under President Richard M. Nixon, pledged to denounce its biological weapon development program completely. Before the Persian Gulf War of 1990 to 1991, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq weaponized large quantities of biological warfare agents that included anthrax bacteria, botulinum toxin and aflatoxin.
Biological weapons take time to infect the populations they are targeted against and have the capacity to spread and affect vary large populations. In 1975, the first multilateral disarmament treaty, the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), was entered into force and banned the development, possession, stockpiling, and transfer of biological weapons. Currently, 170 states are committed to the treaty and since 2013 another 10 have signed but have yet to ratify the treaty.
Reviewed by Sally Robertson, BSc
Last Updated: Mar 25, 2014