photo courtesy of International Civil Defence Organisation
biological attack

Surviving a Biological Attack



biological warfare, article by James Mandeville

Biological Warfare (BW) Attack

bioweapon symbol
Biological warfare (also known as germ warfare), is the use of pathogens such as viruses, bacteria, other disease causing biological agents, or the toxins produced by them as biological weapons (or bioweapons). Note: There is a clear overlap between biological warfare and chemical warfare because the use of toxins produced by living organisms are used as agents in both chemical and biological weapon manufacture. Toxins, which are of organic origin, are often called mid–spectrum agents. Bioweapons are classified as Weapons of Mass Destruction.

A biological weapon is designed to kill, incapacitate and seriously impair a person, group of people or even an entire population. (It may also, confusingly, be defined as the material or defence against such employment.) BW weapons employing viruses are particularly deadly and difficult to protect against, as the infected persons or animals are capable of infecting many others before symptoms become so severe that it is obvious they are ill. 

Biological warfare is a military technique that can be used by nation–states or non–national groups. Bioterrorism is the use or threat of using BWs against civilian populations by terrorist organizations or by nation–states clandestinely.

The creation and stockpiling of biological weapons ("offensive biological warfare") was outlawed by the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) Signed by over 100 countries. The BWC remains in force and it prohibits storage, stockpiling and usage of these weapons. Many countries currently pursue defensive BW research (defensive or protective applications) which are not prohibited by the BWC.

As a tactical weapon, the main military problem with a BW attack is that it would take days to be effective and, therefore, unlike a nuclear or chemical attack, would not immediately stop an opposing force. Some biological agents (especially smallpox, plague and tularemia) have the capability of person–to–person transmission via aerosolized respiratory droplets, which can be undesirable, especially if they are transmitted to unintended target populations, including neutral or even friendly forces. Containment of transmission is less of a concern for terrorists and the threat of such a terrorist attack is ever present.

Ideal characteristics of biological weapons targeting humans are high infectivity, high potency, non–availability of vaccines and delivery as an aerosol.

The diseases most likely to be considered for use as biological weapons are chosen because of their lethality (if delivered efficiently) and robustness (making aerosol delivery feasible).

The biological agents used in biological weapons can often be manufactured quickly and easily. The primary difficulty is not the production of the biological agent but delivery in an effective form to a vulnerable target.

bioweaponMany diseases may be considered for weaponization. These include: Anthrax, ebola, Marburg virus, plague, cholera, tularemia, brucellosis, Q fever, Bolivian hemorrhagic fever, Coccidioides mycosis , Glanders, Melioidosis, Shigella, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, typhus, Psittacosis, yellow fever, Japanese B encephalitis, Rift Valley fever and smallpox. Naturally–occurring toxins that can be used as weapons include ricin, SEB, botulism toxin, saxitoxin and many mycotoxins. Many are known to have been weaponized. Biological warfare can also specifically target flora to destroy crops or defoliate vegetation. The United States and Britain discovered plant growth regulators (i.e., herbicides) during the Second World War and initiated an herbicidal warfare program that was eventually used in Malaya and Vietnam in counter insurgency. (Though herbicides are chemicals, they are often grouped with biological warfare as bioregulators in a similar manner as biotoxins. Scorched earth tactics or destroying livestock and farmland were carried out in the Vietnam war and Eelam War in Sri Lanka.)

The United States developed an anti–crop capability during the Cold War that used plant diseases (bioherbicides or mycoherbicides). It was believed that destruction of enemy agriculture on a strategic scale could thwart Sino–Soviet aggression in a general war. Diseases such as wheat blast and rice blast were weaponized in aerial spray tanks and cluster bombs for delivery to enemy watersheds in agricultural regions to initiate epiphytotics (epidemics among plants). When the United States renounced its offensive biological warfare program in 1969 and 1970, the vast majority of its biological arsenal was composed of these plant diseases.

In the 1980s, the Soviet Ministry of Agriculture had successfully developed variants of foot–and–mouth disease and rinderpest against cows, African swine fever for pigs and psittacosis to kill chickens. These agents were prepared to spray down from tanks attached to aircraft and could cover hundreds of miles. The secret program was code named, "Ecology."

Surviving an attack in civilian areas
In this most gruesome form of attack, there are two main initial considerations: Is this a terrorist attack or an all–out attack by an enemy country using weaponized substances. A terrorist attack is (theoretically) less likely to be as horrendous or devastating as warfare.

The next problem is to determine if an attack is by biological or chemical weapons. As covered above, there is an overlap in this form of weaponry. In theory, the results of a biological attack will only become evident some days or even weeks after the attack has taken place. I say in theory because weaponized biological agents do exist that can cause debilitating symptoms within only a few hours of a victim becoming infected. In these first few hours of such an attack, information, even official information, will be confused and possibly inaccurate. The media will sensationalize or play down the risks depending on their stance; in any event, the media should not be trusted as a source of reliable information. I think we all know by now that governments would be more interested in preventing mass panic than in informing a population truthfully that the majority of people faced a horrible and certain death. Also, if weaponized chemical or biological agents were used, it would be fair to assume the country to be in a state of war and the authorities would be fully occupied with the situation. In all of these scenarios, the truth is that many people would die, rescue agencies and hospitals would be unable to cope and law and order would rapidly break down. The aftermath for the survivors would be grim.

As terrible as the situation would be, people would survive and there are some things one could do to reduce the risk of contamination but to be honest it would be a lottery.

Practical considerations
Following a gas attack or an attack involving the rapid spread of a non–contagious biological agent like anthrax, how to minimize the risk of contamination depends on how close you are to the epicentre of the attack and whether you are inside or outdoors. If you are inside a building and the attack is outside, stay put. If you are in a building that is attacked get out as fast as possible. If you are outside and the attack is outside, get into a building as fast as possible. If you are in an underground railway system that is attacked, get out as fast as possible.  You should also get out of an underground system if the attack is outside and head for a building because the gas or anthrax will flood the underground system, these substances being heavier than air. For the same reason, if you are in a building you should head for the top floors, as these will be contaminated last. If you are caught outside, you should avoid low lying ground, as these agents will collect there. If you are in a vehicle, stay in it and try to drive out of the area.

In a building – chemical weapons and anthrax
Shut and lock all doors and windows. Turn off air conditioners, heaters, ventilation systems, all electrical appliances; close all water and gas taps. Place plugs in hand basins and baths and seal round them. If possible, seal these openings with thick tape, such as Gaffer (Ducting) tape or even Sellotape if that is all you have to hand and preferably do the same around the doors and windows. Pay particular attention to the bottom of doors. If you have a radio, listen for instructions from the authorities (ignore Media comment). If you have read the sections in this book on food and water, you will know that you can survive 3–4 days without water, depending on your initial electrolyte levels and several days without food. Hopefully, when thirst drives you outside, the worst risk will be over. You should only drink bottled water because all other supplies will probably be contaminated (see notes above under chemical weapons).

Biological attack
The obvious safe route is to avoid contact with people who may have been infected. Placing a dust or surgical mask over the face (or a wet towel) will not have much effect as a deterrent against biological agents as they will readily stick to moist surfaces and even multiply in the heat of your breath. Get into a building and find an area where there as few doors and windows as possible, if you can, seal everything with tape as described above. If there are the facilities, shower and wash all your clothing in hot soapy water. Biological agents will remain viable for some hours on all hard surfaces, such as banisters, door handles, lavatories, etc. Try to touch as few surfaces as possible and wash your hands for at least 20 seconds in hot soapy water if you think you may have come into contact with a contaminated surface. If you are with others, you must put a quarantine system into operation. Allow no one to join your group until you are sure they are not infected. If any members of your group fall ill, they must be made to leave your area.

Issues!
As a survivor of such an attack, you have to face some very hard facts. If you want to survive, you must do nothing to put yourself or others at risk of contamination. This may involve some heart breaking decisions, such as not being able to collect children from school, using force to defend yourself, not going to help people who are suffering terribly because they are infected, etc. You may as well make all these ethical/moral decisions now in case you have to face them and decide how you would conduct yourself should the worst arise.

In such a situation, leaders will emerge. You should rapidly evaluate if you consider they know what they are talking about and if their decisions are rational, logical and sound. The same applies if you are given orders by an official; is the person acting on his/her own initiative or do they have good intelligence on which to base his/her judgements. You have to be aware that group pressure can be counterproductive. A group of people can rapidly establish norms based on conventional ethics and wisdom, be aware that convention and ethics have all just flown out of the window. If you are a survivor, you will need to think things through yourself and act accordingly.

Aftermath
The aftermath of an attack by chemical and biological weapons is different. Most chemical weapons will have long lasting contamination, so everything that has come into contact with the chemical agent (or agents) will be a hot zone and hazardous. Most biological agents will disperse after only a few hours, to be safe, do not venture out of your safe area into the hot zone for twenty–four hours. If the biological agents are infectious, the main risk of becoming infected is through contact with other people. The best defence is not to come into contact with anyone. If the chemical or biological contamination was the result of industrial accident or terrorist attack, you can assume that the authorities will set up decontamination areas where you can be decontaminated and receive medical care. If the attack was warfare, help may be a long time coming or may not come at all. It is vital to leave the area as fast as possible. A good strategy is to head for high ground where any residual agents will be at their lowest levels of concentration. When moving around in the outdoors bear in mind that the wind direction is critical to survival. Always try to move crosswind as airborne agents (clouds of gases or airborne particles) will move with the wind along a relatively narrow line. If you move downwind, you will be exposed longer; if you move upwind, you risk heading into greater concentrations of the chemical or biological agent.



Biological warfare