The Implementation of Legally Binding Measures to Strengthen the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention

Volume 150 of the series NATO Science Series II: Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry pp 15-31

A Short History of Biological Warfare and Weapons

  • Mark WheelisAffiliated withUniversity of California

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Although biological weapons have been used only sporadically throughout human history, and their military effectiveness has never been clearly demonstrated by use in war, the impact of natural disease outbreaks continually reminds us that they are potentially very effective weapons. For that reason there has been a continual fascination with them by nations in the last century, a fascination that continues today. Particularly where regional hegemony (or resisting it) may require unconventional weapons, they remain a major threat. The legal regime prohibiting them is clear and in place, but it lacks effective mechanisms to verify compliance and to build confidence in the existing legal regime. Repairing that gap constitutes an urgent agenda for the international community.

The urgency is made greater by the rapid scientific progress stimulated by genomics, proteomics, and a host of related research technologies [37]. These promise increasingly rapid advances in understanding human physiology and microbial pathogenesis. The scientific advances are matched by rapid changes in biotechnology and the pharmaceutical industries, as they too assimilate the new methods. All of this is likely to bring new military interest in biological weapons, perhaps even in countries not now considered proliferation risks.