How bacteria can become a bioweapon

The anthrax bacteria, which can be turned into a bioweapon.

Photo credit: Photo | Fotosearch

When people think about terrorism, only guns and a handful of crude weapons come to mind. This week, a Kenyan medical doctor was sentenced to 12 years in jail for planning a terrorist attack using a biological weapon, anthrax bacteria.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) explains that biological weapons, at times, called bioweapons are microorganisms like viruses, bacteria, fungi or toxic substances produced by living organisms are released to intentionally cause disease and death in humans, animals or plants.

In this explainer, we explore this bacteria and other details that scientists have documented about bioweapons.

What is anthrax bacteria?

Its scientific name is Bacillus anthracis. The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explains that it occurs naturally in soil and it mostly affects domestic and wild animals. Human beings also get infected with the disease should they come in contact with animal products of affected animals. There are about four types of anthrax including; cutaneous, inhalation, gastrointestinal and injection anthrax.

When was anthrax bacteria first used as a bioweapon?

A study published in the scientific journal Cureus shows that it was first used as a bioweapon during the Soviet Union, which resulted in the innovation of the first Soviet Anthrax Vaccine. While historical studies show that it was released accidentally, it later became a preferred bioweapon because once it is released, people get symptoms like those of a cold or flu on the initial days of infection.

“This leads to the assumption that a patient would delay a visit to a healthcare professional, who should be both trained and knowledgeable in biological warfare mechanisms to diagnose the disease,” the study explains.

What makes it a fatal bioweapon?

While a study published in the Malaysian Journal of Medical Sciences shows that anthrax is a ‘science fiction of the past’, they also say that in reality, it poses the greatest threat because it can be as lethal as nuclear weapons.

It also explains that anthrax bacteria is a biological terrorism threat because its spores are resistant to destruction and can be easily spread by release in the air. It can also be easily produced in large quantities.

How does disease caused by anthrax develop and manifest?

Still in the Malaysian Journal of Medical Sciences, the scientists explain that once it is let out and people are exposed to the anthrax spores, they are likely to get symptoms within two days.

The disease could sometimes develop as late as the sixth or eight weeks after contact with the spores.

“Early presentation of anthrax disease would resemble a fever or cough and would be exceedingly difficult to diagnose with a high degree of suspicion. Once symptoms begin, death follows one to three days later for most people. If appropriate antibiotics are not started before the development of symptoms, the mortality rate is estimated to be 90 per cent,” explains the study.

Are there any other bacteria or viruses that can be used as bioweapons?

Apart from anthrax, the World Health Organisation says that the botulinum toxin and plague can also lead to massive public health destruction.

Is there a way to stop the destruction of biological weapons?

Some scientists have come up with ways using biotechnology that can help in curbing biowarfare caused by a bioweapon. The Journal of Education and Health Promotion says that some of the ways include; identifying the human genome, strengthening the immune system, identifying bacteria and viruses' genomes, having equipment for biological identification, acquiring new vaccines, coming up with new antibiotics, and anti-viral drugs must be monitored.

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