Archive for the ‘Unit 731’ Category

Biological Warfare and Bioterrorism: part 1 History

Thursday, July 5th, 2012

This modern archer's arrow tips aren't as deadly

I wanted to write a post about the 1979 and 2001 anthrax attacks, but, as usual, decided that I should read about and write about the the background concepts first. I found a paper titled, "A History of Biological Warfare from 300 B.C.E. to the Present" written by an associate professor of respiratory care at Long Island University and decided I'd start there.

Our earliest reference to biological warfare concerns the Scythians, a tribe of nomads who migrated from Central Asia to Southern Russia in the 8th and 7th century BCE, founding an empire that lasted several centuries. Their prowess in war and their horsemanship were admired, but their archers were also a formidable force, using arrows dipped in the decomposed bodies of venomous snakes as well as in a mixture of decayed human blood and feces. This concoction would have had both snake venom and several deadly forms of bacteria.

A later episode of bio-warfare came in the 14th century when the Mongol army besieged the Crimean city of Caffa. The Tarters hurled cadavers into Caffa, having suffered from an epidemic of plague themselves. In doing so they not only got rid of their dead, but transmitted the disease to the inhabitants of Caffa. A memoir by the Genoese writer Gabriele de' Mussi which covers the war has been reviewed by Mark Wheelis, an emeritus professor of microbiology at UC Davis. He concludes that the Black Plague pandemic of that time period likely spread from the Crimea to Europe. It's still questionable if the Genoese traders in the city were the ones who brought the plague back.

Hannibal is famous for his use of elephants in the war between Carthage and Rome. He also used poisonous snakes, concealed in earthen jars and hurled onto opposing ships during a naval battle in 184 BCE against the leader of Pergomon.

Smallpox was used as a weapon in the French and Indian Wars (1754-1767). The outbreak of the disease at Fort Pitt led to a plan conceived by Colonel Henry Bouquet and General Jeffery Amherst. The British gave their enemies blankets and a handkerchief, all contaminated with pus from the sores of infected British troops, at a peace conference. Many other Indian tribes caught smallpox eventually, but this episode was a deliberate attempt to use the virus to gain advantage in a wartime situation.

And this prison is safer than Unit 731

In World War II, the Japanese Army established the infamous Unit 731. The country had refused to sign the 1925 Geneva Convention ban on biological weapons and in 1932, after Japan invaded Manchuria, an army officer and physician named Shiro Ishii was put in charge of the "Anti-epidemic Water Supply and Purification Bureau." a euphemism for a prison camp for bio-warfare research.

He and his staff spent years experimenting with many the world's most deadly diseases, using Chinese prisoners as guinea pigs for cholera, plague and dysentery. Over 10,000 of the victims died. Field trials included spraying bacterial cultures from airplanes over eleven Chinese cities.

Ishii was eventually replaced as head of the unit by Kitano Misaji, who later became Lieutenant Surgeon General; after the war the United States granted both immunity from war crimes prosecution in exchange for their bio-warfare knowledge. Ishii had faked his own death and gone into hiding, but was captured and interrogated. Neither man's information proved to be of much value in the long run. Ironically Misaji  later worked for the Japanese pharmaceutical company Green Cross, becoming the chief director of the company in 1959.

I've skipped many vignettes, but it's time to get to the modern era, returning to anthrax as a major subject to discuss.