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Chapter: Biotechnology Applying the Genetic Revolution: Biowarfare and Bioterrorism

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History of Human Biological Warfare

Burning crops was probably the earliest form of warfare aimed at undermining an enemy’s survival by biological means.

HISTORY OF HUMAN BIOLOGICAL WARFARE

Burning crops was probably the earliest form of warfare aimed at undermining an enemy’s survival by biological means. Early in history, the water supply was also a prime biological target for feuding nomads, especially in areas where water was scarce. Presumably tossing dead or rotting animals into waterholes poisoned the drinking water and proved to be reasonably effective in driving the enemy away.

Throughout history there have been occasional sporadic attempts to deliberately spread infection for military purposes. However, these have mostly been ineffective or irrelevant. During the Black Death epidemic of the mid-1300s, the Tartars catapulted plague-ridden corpses over the walls into cities held by their European enemies.

Although this is sometimes credited with spreading the plague, in reality, rats and their fleas spread bubonic plague , not contact with corpses. Catapulting bodies into a city may deserve points for enthusiasm, but it doesn’t earn an A in microbiology. In medieval Europe, dead or sick animals were hurled over the walls into castles or walled cities to break sieges by spreading disease. Nonetheless, given the state of hygiene in most medieval towns or castles, there was often little need to provide an outside source of infection. With plague, typhoid, smallpox , dysentery, and diphtheria already around, all that was usually necessary was to let nature take its course. Similarly, attempts of white settlersto spread smallpox among the American Indians were not only ratherineffective but also largely irrelevant because smallpox had already spread by itself.

The reason why germ warfare has been of little account until recently is that plenty of dangerous infections were already in circulation. If an army was crowded and unhygienic, some natural disease would undoubtedly attempt a biological assault without waiting for artificial prompting. Until recently, armies, like civilian populations, were so dirty and disease-ridden that practicing germ warfare was rather like trying to kill a shark by drowning it. Only in our modern disinfected age has spreading disease deliberately become a meaningful threat.


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