Lethal Strains: Challenges in the Pursuit of Biological Security. (World in Review)

By Hsin, Honor | Harvard International Review, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Lethal Strains: Challenges in the Pursuit of Biological Security. (World in Review)


Hsin, Honor, Harvard International Review


In October 5, 2001, a weaponized form of anthrax claimed its first public casualty in the United States. In the following weeks, at least 17 people succumbed to anthrax infection. Although anthrax caused few deaths compared to the terrorist attacks of September 11, its effects included periods of nationwide panic. More than a year after the first anthrax attacks and the adoption of numerous US security reforms, questions continue to be raised regarding the effectiveness of biological security strategies.

In September 2002,John Hamre, president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, remarked that the US anti-bioterrorism effort is still "years away" from structural completion. Several prominent scientists and policymakers have recently discussed the challenge of protecting biological security; and all emphasize the need for extensive communication between the government, medical professionals, and the public. Biological security requires a different approach than security strategies for other weapons of mass destruction, notably nuclear weapons, which were the focus of most security strategies until now. Progress in public health initiatives and scientific research must also be achieved in the international arena.

Nuclear vs. Biological

World War II saw the rise and proliferation of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). These weapons differ greatly from one another in modes of production, weaponization, deployment, prevention, and defense. Christopher Chyba of the Stanford University Center for International Security and Cooperation suggested that if nuclear weapons occupy one extreme of the WMD "continuum," they are followed successively by chemical, biological, and cyberweapons. The primary distinction among WMDs along the continuum lies in the ease of detection. More specifically, the time required for the construction and preparation of nuclear and biological weapons differ significantly enough to warrant different security strategies.

The most time-consuming stage in constructing nuclear weapons is the acquisition of fissile material. Enriched uranium or plutonium must either be mined or stolen. Mines are costly, bear the signature of radiation leakage, and can be visually detected by satellite imaging. Theft is easier, though recent discussion of the risk of theft has begun to raise awareness of the importance of protecting fissile material. Once the materials are collected, the second hurdle lies in constructing the nuclear weapon, a task that requires some degree of technical proficiency and poses a significant health risk to the builder.

The production of biological weapons, however, is more difficult to detect. Biological agents and materials are much easier to obtain than enriched plutonium and are often available for purchase under the guise of legitimate research. Biological agents are more fragile, and the process of converting them into weapons is the primary delay in preparation. However, the techniques involved are less complex, pose less of a health risk during development, and rarely carry a detectable signature. Monitoring proliferation of biological weapons, therefore, constitutes a difficult challenge.

Once a biological agent is weaponized and delivered, the speed and lethality of destruction can vary widely depending on the type of agent and the physical environment in which the agent is released. Because of these ambiguities and the existence of an incubation interval between exposure and the appearance of symptoms, the model of deterrence developed for nuclear weapons does not apply. In the case of biological weapons, defensive strategies, rather than deterrence, play a more critical role in preventing and defending against an attack.

Global Standards

The 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) aimed to provide a framework for nonproliferation by banning the production and stockpiling of biological weapons. …

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