The history of anthrax in war

Tuesday, October 23rd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Biological warfare in America goes all the way back to the 18th century, when a Captain of the British forces gave smallpox infected blankets to Native Americans. The deadly gift sparked a smallpox epidemic among tribes along the Ohio River - killing thousands.

As News on Six reporter Tami Marler explains, the use of anthrax, as a weapon is not new either. It's hard to imagine cattle being used as weapons against humanity, but experts on biological warfare say it happened as early as World War I.

Both the Germans and the Allies injected livestock with anthrax then exported the animals to their enemies. Oklahoma State University’s Dr Rebecca Morton, "Anthrax started as a very effective biological weapon. And I think people too probably from human cases, knew that it could kill humans too. And I think that throughout history people have looked at these agents, you know, when you're in war, you look at every possibility. And of course this is a really awful way."

Some countries have witnessed first-hand how deadly anthrax can be. Areas like the former Soviet Union. "Obelansk, this town that we went to and the lab at Obelansk, really worked with bacterial/biological warfare agents up until the early '90s." Dr Rebecca Morton just returned from a plant in Russia where the Soviets were developing anthrax as a weapon that can be resistant to antibiotics. "We know the capability is there. We know the former Soviet Union had the capability of doing that. And they stated that last week." We also know that - back in 1979, an accidental release of anthrax from a military facility killed 66 people. They all suffered from inhalation anthrax. "We know back in the '40s during WWII that at least allied nations were experimenting with this agent as a potential biological warfare agent." Japan was experimenting too. A biological attack on a Chinese province killed about 10,000 people. It’s being called the war of the future, but some would argue, it's happening today. "What other countries might have this capability, once again, I don't know. But the technology is there.” The question is - who has it.

Since the 1970s, America's role in biological warfare has shifted from an offensive to a defensive mode. Dr Morton's group was in Russia to help develop vaccines and treatments that combat biological warfare.