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The father of the Japanese biological weapons programme, the radical nationalist Shiro Ishii, thought that such weapons would constitute formidable tools to further Japan's imperialistic plans. He started his research in at the Tokyo Army Medical School and later became head of Japan's bioweapon programme during the Second World War Harris, , , At its height, the programme employed more than 5, people, and killed as many as prisoners a year in human experiments in just one of its 26 centres.

The Japanese tested at least 25 different disease-causing agents on prisoners and unsuspecting civilians. During the war, the Japanese army poisoned more than 1, water wells in Chinese villages to study cholera and typhus outbreaks.

War diaries of units in the First World War

Japanese planes dropped plague-infested fleas over Chinese cities or distributed them by means of saboteurs in rice fields and along roads. Some of the epidemics they caused persisted for years and continued to kill more than 30, people in , long after the Japanese had surrendered Harris, , Ishii's troops also used some of their agents against the Soviet army, but it is unclear as to whether the casualties on both sides were caused by this deliberate spread of disease or by natural infections Harris, After the war, the Soviets convicted some of the Japanese biowarfare researchers for war crimes, but the USA granted freedom to all researchers in exchange for information on their human experiments.

In this way, war criminals once more became respected citizens, and some went on to found pharmaceutical companies. Ishii's successor, Masaji Kitano, even published postwar research articles on human experiments, replacing 'human' with 'monkey' when referring to the experiments in wartime China Harris, , Although some US scientists thought the Japanese information insightful, it is now largely assumed that it was of no real help to the US biological warfare programme projects.

These started in on a small scale, but increased during the war to include more than 5, people by The main effort focused on developing capabilities to counter a Japanese attack with biological weapons, but documents indicate that the US government also discussed the offensive use of anti-crop weapons Bernstein, Soon after the war, the US military started open-air tests, exposing test animals, human volunteers and unsuspecting civilians to both pathogenic and non-pathogenic microbes Cole, ; Regis, A release of bacteria from naval vessels off.

Bacterial aerosols were released at more than sites, including bus stations and airports. The most infamous test was the contamination of the New York metro system with Bacillus globigii — a non-infectious bacterium used to simulate the release of anthrax—to study the spread of the pathogen in a big city. But with the opposition to the Vietnam War growing and the realization that biological weapons could soon become the poor man's nuclear bomb, President Nixon decided to abandon offensive biological weapons research and signed the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention BTWC in , an improvement on the Geneva Protocol.

Although the latter disallowed only the use of chemical or biological weapons, the BTWC also prohibits research on biological weapons. However, the BTWC does not include means for verification, and it is somewhat ironic that the US administration let the verification protocol fail in , particularly in view of the Soviet bioweapons project, which not only was a clear breach of the BTWC, but also remained undetected for years. The size and scope of the Soviet Union's efforts were truly staggering: they produced and stockpiled tons of anthrax bacilli and smallpox virus, some for use in intercontinental ballistic missiles, and engineered multidrug-resistant bacteria, including plague.

They worked on haemorrhagic fever viruses, some of the deadliest pathogens that humankind has encountered.

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When virologist Nikolai Ustinov died after injecting himself with the deadly Marburg virus, his colleagues, with the mad logic and enthusiasm of bioweapon developers, re-isolated the virus from his body and found that it had mutated into a more virulent form than the one that Ustinov had used. And few took any notice, even when accidents happened. In , smallpox broke out in the Kazakh city of Aralsk and killed three of the ten people that were infected. It is speculated that they were infected from a bioweapons research centre on a small island in the Aral Sea Enserink, In the same area, on other occasions, several fishermen and a researcher died from plague and glanders, respectively Miller et al.

In , the Soviet secret police orchestrated a large cover-up to explain an outbreak of anthrax in Sverdlovsk, now Ekaterinburg, Russia, with poisoned meat from anthrax-contaminated animals sold on the black market. It was eventually revealed to have been due to an accident in a bioweapons factory, where a clogged air filter was removed but not replaced between shifts Fig.

Anthrax as a biological weapon. The map C shows six villages in which animals died after anthrax spores were released from a bioweapons factory in Sverdlovsk, USSR, in Settled areas are shown in grey, roads in white, lakes in blue and the calculated contours of constant dosage of anthrax spores in black. At least 66 people died after the accident. Reprinted with permission from Meselson et al. The most striking feature of the Soviet programme was that it remained secret for such a long time.

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During the Second World War, the Soviets used a simple trick to check whether US researchers were occupied with secret research: they monitored whether American physicists were publishing their results. Indeed, they were not, and the conclusion was, correctly, that the US was busy building a nuclear bomb Rhodes, , pp. The same trick could have revealed the Soviet bioweapons programme much earlier Fig.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, most of these programmes were halted and the research centres abandoned or converted for civilian use. Nevertheless, nobody really knows what the Russians are working on today and what happened to the weapons they produced.

According to US intelligence, South Africa, Israel, Iraq and several other countries have developed or still are developing biological weapons Zilinskas, ; Leitenberg, Detecting biological warfare research. A comparison of the number of publications from two Russian scientists.

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Sandakchiev black bars was involved, as the head of the Vector Institute for viral research, in the Soviet project to produce smallpox as an offensive biological weapon. Krylov white bars was not. Note the decrease in publications by Sandakchiev compared with those by Krylov. The data were compiled from citations from a PubMed search for the researchers on 15 August Apart from state-sponsored biowarfare programmes, individuals and non-governmental groups have also gained access to potentially dangerous microorganisms, and some have used them Purver, A few examples include the spread of hepatitis, parasitic infections, severe diarrhoea and gastroenteritis.

The sect, which ran a hospital on its grounds, obtained the bacterial strain from a commercial supplier. Similarly, a right-wing laboratory technician tried to get hold of the plague bacterium from the American Tissue Culture Collection, and was only discovered after he complained that the procedure took too long Cole, These examples clearly indicate that organized groups or individuals with sufficient determination can obtain dangerous biological agents.


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  5. All that is required is a request to 'colleagues' at scientific institutions, who share their published materials with the rest of the community Breithaupt, Another religious cult, in Japan, proved both the ease and the difficulties of using biological weapons.