Through Barry C. Fox, MD, University of Wisconsin

September 11, 2001 changed America and Americans. Knowing that we were vulnerable to terrorist attacks, even though we were protected by vast oceans, was a terrible realization. Seven days later, a new kind of terrorism, a bioterrorist attack hit the United States in the form of anthrax in five envelopes sent through the United States Postal System.

Immediately after September 11, America was surprised by postal bioterrorism. (Image: GagliardiPhotography / Shutterstock)

Anthrax mail attack

You may remember the first case, which happened in Florida and resulted in the first death from anthrax. Letters were sent to American Media, NBC, ABC, CBS and to a State Department senator’s office. This attack resulted in 22 cases of anthrax, with five deaths due to inhaling bacterial spores.

Besides the deaths, there was mass chaos in the Washington, DC area over concerns over the Postal Service and the deaths of two workers. Nineteen thousand tests were performed and 33,000 people were placed on prophylactic antibiotics. Long and costly environmental surveys were carried out in post offices and mail rooms, and the postal service was significantly disrupted. The decontamination of a single building cost $ 23 million.

Experts say it is no longer a maybe; bioterrorism will occur, that is, the intentional release of viruses, bacteria or other germs. These germs have the potential to devastate our food supply, infest our water, contaminate the air, and ultimately make people sick or kill.

This is a transcript of the video series An introduction to infectious diseases. Look at it now Wondrium.

Bioterrorist attacks in the Middle Ages

Although not well documented, there are a few stories of early bioterrorism. As early as the 14th and 15th centuries, dead and sick bodies of infected humans or animals were thrown at the enemy using catapults, part of the first tests of biological weapons. One case took place in Caffa, a city in Ukraine, which was under attack. The Tartars turned their plague plague into a new form of weapon of attack.

Image of a catapult
During the 14th and 15th centuries, there were instances where fighters would catapult their plague-infested corpses onto the walls of enemy cities. (Image: Images Virrage / Shutterstock)

There are also several accounts of attempts to spread smallpox to the enemy via contaminated blankets, one of which took place during the conquest of the Incas in Peru and another against the American Indians. Believe it or not, in 1675 there was a first treaty on biological weapons. The Holy Roman Empire and the French agreed not to use poison bullets against each other.

Other agents over the years included saliva from rabid dogs and even containers of poisonous snakes. Those of you who are Sherlock Holmes fans might be amused to know a fictional bioterrorism account. In Adventure of the dying detective, Holmes is investigating a murder in which he suspected a biological weapon had been used. All indications indicated that the plague was the murder weapon in question.

Learn more about the steps the CDC is taking to protect the public.

Modern bioterrorism

Let’s explore the modern threats of bioterrorism and the agents that could be used in an attack. Efforts were made in the 20th century to reduce the use of biological weapons. For example, in 1925, the Geneva Protocol was established, banning the use of chemicals and biological agents, but not the research and development of them.

During the Cold War, Russia and the United States developed bioterrorism weapons. And during the 1950s and 1960s in the United States, outdoor testing was done with what was thought to be a harmless bacteria named Serratia Marcescens. The US government wanted to know what would happen if a biological weapon was planted in a subway or dropped from a plane.

During a real trial in San Francisco, it was disturbing to find that almost all of the 800,000 residents showed traces of Serratia. In another test, a light bulb filled with harmless bacteria was dropped on the New York subway tracks. The organism spread throughout the metro in 20 minutes.

By the late 1960s, the United States had a vast arsenal of different pathogens stored in the form of bacteria, fungi, and toxins. However, in 1969, President Nixon ended the offensive biological warfare program. He ordered the destruction of the stored weapons. After that, American research focused on defensive rather than offensive measures.

Learn more about emerging and re-emerging diseases.

How the Soviets got it wrong

In 1972, the United States and more than 100 countries signed the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, or BWC, the world’s first treaty banning an entire class of weapons. More specifically, the treaty prohibited the research, development, production, stockpiling or acquisition of biological weapons, as well as the means of delivering them.

Flag of the Soviet Union
Despite the signing and approval of treaties, the Soviets did not honor them. (Image: Jiri Flogel / Shutterstock)

But in 1979, a powdered form of anthrax was accidentally released from a Soviet biological weapons facility in Russia, killing 70 people. This facility was able to produce tons of toxin. Although the Russians blamed the contaminated meat for the deaths in order to cover up the crash, in 1992 an American team visited the site. They found evidence in the lungs of victims – many of whom died from inhaled anthrax – a serious violation of the BWC Treaty.

Thanks to several deserters from the Soviet Union, the United States realized the enormous size of the Soviet biological weapons program. This would have included a genetically engineered super plague, antibiotic resistant anthrax, and long-range missiles to spread the disease.

Obviously, the Soviet program had facilities with thousands of scientists. In the 1980s and 1990s, many of these scientists became free agents – with dangerous knowledge to sell. Today, we believe there are biological weapons in at least 12 countries, prompting medical and public health organizations to prepare.

Common questions on a brief history of bioterrorist attacks

Q: How was the anthrax bioterrorist attack handled?

The day after the anthrax bioterrorist attack, nearly 20,000 tests were carried out and more than 30,000 people had to be put on antibiotics.

Q: How did the United States find out that the Soviet Union was developing biochemical weapons?

After an accident at the hands of the Soviets, it was discovered that they were testing weapons that could be used in a bioterrorist attack. This knowledge, combined with the information that defectors from the laboratories of the Soviet Union provided to the United States, convinced them that the Soviet Union was not honoring the treaty it had previously signed.

Q: What is an example of a very early bioterrorist attack?

One of the earliest examples of a bioterrorist attack It was when the Tartars catapulted plague-infested corpses into the town of Caffa.

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