In the midst of a worldwide pandemic it seems appropriate to blog about biological warfare. Some high-ranking American officials believe the novel coronavirus, the source of the covid-19 plague that has killed nearly 500,000 Americans, is a form of biological warfare foisted on the United States by China. More about that later. But this is scary stuff to be sure. A subset of biological warfare is entomological warfare — insects! I was shocked to discover American scientists “experimented” with insect attacks by releasing mosquito hordes on some U.S. states. This blog is chiefly concerned with state-sponsored biological warfare and not bioterrorism conducted by independent evil-doers. That could be a whole other blog.
History of biological warfare
A well-known case of early biological warfare involved Sir Jeffrey Amherst, the commander-in-chief of British forces in North America during the French and Indian War. A trader inside the besieged Fort Pitt where smallpox patients were being treated, reportedly got the cruel idea to give two blankets and a silk handkerchief from the fort’s hospital to Indian emissaries hoping to negotiate a British surrender. Amherst was not involved in the blanket exchange, but he and another British officer had been discussing the same idea — and Amherst put the idea to paper — so the British general has come down in history as a virtual war criminal.
There is no record at all the smallpox attack worked. The disease had probably already gone through the Indian tribes besieging the fort, and the survivors would have had immunity. Besides, the British needn’t have bothered. Smallpox and around 30 other European diseases naturally spread through the East Coast and Canadian tribes, decimating populations and in some cases entirely wiping out Indian communities. In South America and the Caribbean, European diseases killed 90 percent of the native populations.
While warhistorybuffs know about Amherst and his blankets, I was surprised to learn biological warfare goes back way farther than the 1700s. No one knew about germs — microbes like bacteria and viruses. But everyone knew “something” could make groups of people get sick and die. And military leaders reasoned dead bodies carried that “something.” So the first “vector” or pathway for biological warfare was corpses. French researcher Friedrich Frischknecht (Author photo) writes about the history of biological warfare in an interesting scholarly article.
Frischknecht notes the bodies of plague victims could be catapulted over city walls or thrown down water wells. Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I, known as Barbarossa in Italy, tried fouling water wells with corpses while fighting in Tortona, Italy, in 1155. Crusaders liked to pitch bodies and heads of their Muslim enemies over the walls, but that was mostly a terror tactic. The Mongols weaponized the idea in 1346 when they catapulted plague victims over the city walls of Caffa on the Crimean peninsula.
Biological warfare continued to evolve. In 1495 Spanish troops mixed the blood of leprosy victims with wine and sold to their French opponents in Naples, Italy. In 1650 the Polish fired saliva from rabid dogs at their opponents. Our own Confederate side tried the blanket trick again when they sold coverings taken from Yellow Fever victims to Union troops in 1863. No one knew at that time Yellow Fever was contracted from mosquitoes and couldn’t be spread by blankets.
Leave it to the Japanese during World War II to research, experiment (on humans), and deploy biological attacks on a large scale in China. Japanese ultra-nationalists had warped and twisted traditional philosophies so anyone who wasn’t Japanese was considered sub-human, or non-human, and fair game for rape, torture, and murder. A researcher named Shiro Ishii began studying weaponized pathogens in 1930 and his program grew to more than 5,000 people. The “mad” scientists killed as many as 600 (mostly Chinese) prisoners a year in human experiments. Japan declared war on China in 1937 and proceeded to kill millions of Chinese by various methods. The Japanese army poisoned more than 1,000 water wells to study cholera and typhus outbreaks. Japanese planes dropped plague-infested fleas over Chinese cities. The French researcher Frischknecht says some of the epidemics they caused persisted for years after the war.
Ishii’s case remains one of the most infamous injustices following the Japanese surrender in 1945. Instead of hanging, Ishii avoided any punishment and became a well-paid consultant to not only pharmaceutical firms, but also the U.S. government, which mounted its own biological warfare program over worries about defending against Soviet biological attacks.
The official name is entomological warfare, or EW. It means insects are used to carry biological pathogens to the enemy or for insects like bees, mosquitoes, and beetles to directly sting and bite people or eat crops.
I was surprised to learn the humble, little Colorado potato beetle became a possible EW warrior on the European front in WW II. France, Germany, and England all studied the possibilities of unleashing the beetle to munch on the crops of their enemies. The insect had immigrated to Europe from America and become an invasive species. No actual attack occurred although a mysterious outbreak of Colorado beetles occurred in Germany shortly before the Nazi surrender. Some speculate Germany’s stock of research beetles escaped.
Of course the WW II Japanese were “leaders” in EW. Unit 731, Japan’s biological warfare section, dropped plague-infected fleas and cholera-covered flies in special “Yagi” bombs on the Chinese. Researchers definitively concluded in 2002 entomological warfare killed 440,000 Chinese.
I guess I don’t blame the United States for conducting biological and EW research, but our scientists got carried away (see the photo above on the subway experiment). The U.S. knew about the Japanese biological attacks and after the war the Russians became the likely country to use pathogens on us.
American researchers had the unfortunate habit of conducting tests on their own citizens. Fairly benign tests if you count mosquito bites and flea infestations as benign but still … In 1954 “Operation Big Itch” was supposed to test the effectiveness of fleas, but the bugs escaped prematurely and bit military personnel. In 1955 “Operation Big Buzz” released 300,000 uninfected mosquitoes over Georgia to see if the annoying insects could be EW warriors. More experiments were conducted in subsequent years. Unfortunately, Savannah, Georgia, became a popular testing site. There’s no unclassified record of how these tests turned out or who if anyone was injured.
President Nixon was disturbed by the idea of biological warfare and had the United States sign the Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention of 1972. It bans the development, production, and stockpiling of bio weapons, but does allow defensive studies. Nixon supposedly even stopped that level of research. The threat remains. Nowadays, intelligence officials suggest insects could be genetically engineered to create “killer mosquitoes” or plagues that kill people or ruin crops.
How about SARS-CoV-2
Quick answer to the question posed in the caption – no, probably. But plenty of voices insist China developed the virus that causes covid-19 in a lab in Wuhan, China. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., believes it. Former President Trump probably believes it. Dr. Li-Meng Yan, a virologist from Hong Kong, created a sensation on Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox in September 2020 when she insisted the virus’s genome proves it was genetically altered by humans.
However, a great crush of top international and U.S. public health officials including in the World Health Organization, the CDC and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence concluded the virus is naturally occurring and probably passed from bats to an intermediate animal like the scaly pangolin to humans. There is no question the Wuhan Institute of Virology was studying bat viruses. An accidental release from the Wuhan laboratory has not been ruled out. The Chinese are pathologically secretive and have been horribly obstructionist in releasing information about the outbreak of covid-19 that occurred in December 2019. The Chinese government silenced six doctors or scientists who raised the alarm about a mysterious illness spreading in the city of 11 million. It was only in late January 2021 that a team of WHO scientists was allowed in Wuhan to inspect possible origin sites including the city’s infamous Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market.
The Chinese did release the genome schematics of the virus in January 2020 and within hours researchers were constructing computer simulations of a possible vaccine. Ten months later several vaccines are being injected into human arms.
If it does come out the novel coronavirus was a biological weapon gone horribly wrong then it will become yet another cautionary tale for the world’s militaries and would-be terrorists. Microbes are stupid and single-minded, only wanting to exist and replicate with no regard for borders, political philosophies, or nationalities.