Bioviolence: A Very Brief History

This past week, two of my colleagues—Crystal Watson and Gigi Kwik Gronvall—and I were honored to participate in SB7.0, the preeminent international meeting of the synthetic biology community. Synthetic biology seeks to apply engineering principles to the squishy, often chaotic world of biology (read Gigi’s book for a deeper dive). Our role at SB7.0 was to convene an international group of graduate students and early career scientists from the ‘synbio’ and biosecurity communities to jointly consider how to ensure that advanced biotechnologies are applied solely for the benefit of mankind.

As part of the program, this group of fellows attended a series of panel discussions and presentations on the past, present, and future of biosecurity. At one of those discussions I gave the following remarks on the history of bioviolence—a term I prefer to the more common and specific “bioterrorism” and “biowarfare”.


This morning, it’s my job to convince you of the immediacy of biological threats, particularly those of an intentional nature. It is after all the case that the life sciences—and the biotechnologies that spring from them—are no different than most other technologies, in that they have the potential to amplify humanity’s worst impulses, as well as our best.

I’m acutely aware that this word of caution and line of thinking may sound tonally somewhat out of place, being that we’re all at a conference intended to highlight the exciting and universally constructive applications of synthetic biology. Even still, I would suggest that it’s essential for you to be aware of the history of bioviolence in order to be responsible stewards and creators of our shared future.

Of all the scourges of mankind, plagues and warfare are almost certainly the most dreaded and dangerous. Several times throughout history—and more frequently than most people are aware of—there have been attempts by individuals, organizations, and nation-states to harness the former in service of the latter.

So, if I was to attempt to be comprehensive, there is easily a 2-3 hour version of this talk that would probably start in 1346 at the Black Sea port of Caffa; take us through to British held Fort Pitt in 1763; and possibly leave off with the events of October 2001, when an already shaken U.S. population suddenly became acutely concerned about the contents of our mail. At all of these times and places, there is evidence to suggest that weaponized pathogens were utilized during conflict. But sadly, I will have to be considerably more brief. What I’d like to do is to quickly touch on a few episodes in the history of bioviolence that I hope you’ll keep in mind as we go through this week together.

No discussion of the history of biological weapons would be complete without understanding something about the Soviet biological weapons (BW) program during the Cold War period, so that’s where we’ll start. Most people are at least peripherally aware of the nuclear arms race that characterized the Cold War. What far fewer people—even those with a background in the life sciences—are aware of is the extent to which that same mindset carried over into the biological realm.

During the Cold War, the U.S. and USSR both ran offensive BW programs, and both were successful in developed deployable BW for use against personnel and agricultural targets. In the course of developing these weapons, sophisticated open air testing was conducted that conclusively demonstrated the terrible effectiveness of these weapons. As our colleague, Randy Larsen (our Center's National Security Advisor) likes to say in reference to the biological threat, “we’ve had Trinity, but thankfully not Hiroshima and Nagasaki “.

However, in 1970, President Nixon renounced and abandoned America’s offensive BW program, limited research to biodefense aims, and signed the Biological Weapons and Toxins Convention (BWC), which would enter into force in 1975, and was the first arms control agreement to ban an entire class of weapons.

The Soviet Union, however, chose another path.

Right around the time the BWC was signed, the USSR established a covert and nominally civilian offensive BW program under an organization called Biopreparat. This was a massive undertaking. At its height, it involved between 16-20 research and production facilities, thousands of scientists, and high-level political support. Biopreparat was capable of producing tons of B. anthracis, variola virus, Y. pestis, F. tularensis, and others.

Very little was definitively known about the scale and scope of the Soviet program until the early 90s, when a series of disclosures were made by the Yeltsin government, and several of their weaponeers defected. Western intelligence agencies certainly had their suspicions, however. The most compelling evidence was provided when an unusual epidemic of anthrax occurred in the city of Sverdlovsk in 1979. Local and military authorities responded with urgency, and quickly propagated the fiction that the epidemic had been caused by the ingestion of tainted meat. After the demise of the Soviet Union, it was revealed that a technician working in Sverdlovsk’s production facility had not replaced a filter, causing an environmental release that killed roughly 100 people via inhalation anthrax.

For those interested in learning more, I would recommend Leitenberg and Zilinkas’s “The Soviet Biological Weapons Program: A History”.

Another program I’d like to touch on briefly is South Africa’s Project Coast. This was a smaller scale offensive chemical and biological program run by South Africa’s apartheid government from 1981 to 1992. Project Coast and its director, Dr. Wooter Basson, focused on developing unconventional weapons systems primarily for use in assassination and sabotage operations. Officials from the U.S. State Department have publically stated that, should a state-run BW program be uncovered in the near future, that they would expect it to more closely resemble Project Coast than Biopreparat.

Distinct from but related to threats posed by state-run offensive biological weapons programs is the acquisition and use of these weapons by terrorist organizations. Notable examples include:

  • The 1984 contamination of a salad bar in Oregon with Salmonella by a religious commune known as the Rajneeshees that caused over 700 cases of gastroenteritis;
  • The research, development, and deployment of multiple chemical and biological weapons by a Japanese cult called Aum Shinrikyo in the 1990s;
  • The 2001 anthrax letters;
  • The repeated mailing of letters containing crude preparations of ricin;  
  • ISIS’s infamous “Laptop of Doom” which apparently contained information on BW; and
  • The foiled 2016 plot that allegedly involved a small network of Kenyan medical students who planned to use anthrax during an attack.

I would also point to the recent use of chemical weapons on the battlefields of Syria and Iraq as well as an audacious assassination carried out by agents of the North Korean government in Malaysia as having a potentially degradative effect on norms relating to BW non-proliferation and use.

In closing, my challenge to you as biosecurity fellows would be to keep this history in mind, learn more about it if I’ve been successful in piquing your interest, and some of you should consider going into government to work on these issues. I’ve long thought that one reason we as a species survived the Cold War was that nuclear scientists—on both sides of the Iron Curtain—went into government and advised policymakers about the nature of the threat they faced. It’s imperative for our collective security that biologists do the same.