The Risk of Anthrax

Some reality to counter the hype.

The Bottom Line

While there has been much consternation and alarm-raising over the potential for widespread proliferation of biological weapons and the possible use of such weapons on a massive scale, there are significant constraints on such designs. The current dearth of substantial biological weapons programs and arsenals by governments worldwide, and the even smaller number of cases in which systems were actually used, seems to belie -- or at least bring into question -- the intense concern about such programs.

While we would like to believe that countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom and Russia have halted their biological warfare programs for some noble ideological or humanitarian reason, we simply can’t. If biological weapons were in practice as effective as some would lead us to believe, these states would surely maintain stockpiles of them, just as they have maintained their nuclear weapons programs. Biological weapons programs were abandoned because they proved to be not as effective as advertised and because conventional munitions proved to provide more bang for the buck.

Posted on August 13, 2008 at 2:29 PM • 33 Comments


TanukiAugust 13, 2008 3:11 PM

Truth be told, if I was interested in deploying bioweapons I'd be going for the stealthily backdoor low-level ones. Colorado-beetles. "Smut" fungus of wheat; maybe also Ergot [with its interesting spectrum of hallucinogenic side-effects, all the better to be spread during a series of uncharacteristically wet summers]. Potato-blight, too - that's the one that desolated Ireland in the 1850s.

Bubonic Plague could be 'interesting' too, given that the UK government's push to promote recycling means that we now only get our garbage collected every two weeks and the rat/fox population is predicted to soar.

Clive RobinsonAugust 13, 2008 3:12 PM

The main problem with both chemical and biological weapons is the delivery mechanism.

During the second world war the U.K. Tested anthrax on a Scotish island, which showed it had little practical use as a general delivery weapon. The fact that they where happy to leave the island contaminated for close on the next fifty years before finally cleaning the island says a great deal about the (lack of) effectivness of anthrax.

Also in the case of biological weapons there are additional problems. In that the agent can easily end up biting the hand that released it, due amongst other things mutation (which we see most years with flu).

Although there have been pandemics (1918 flu) they had no real controlable method of combating them and they basicaly just ran out of susceptable victims. Which is easily seen as a clear warning against biological weapons.

Although I am reasonably certain that quite a few countries are activly involved in what might be considered biological weapons programes I suspect that it is from the defending against an attack asspect. this is due in the main to the "Pandoras box" fear.

OmnifariousAugust 13, 2008 3:13 PM

The analysis suffers from a major problem. It evaluates risk on the basis of a largish state conducting a war with the kinds of goals a largish state might have for such an action. That is not the threat model that is appropriate.

The goal of warriors conducting warfare on the behalf of an entity that can't even really be called a state is frequently simply disruption and fear. In that measure, the people currently attacking the United States have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. I am sure that use of biological weapons would be on par with effectiveness as crashing a plane into a major building.

Clive RobinsonAugust 13, 2008 3:18 PM

@ Bruce,

Are you on holiday?

It's just that you used to post around lunch time in the U.K. (12:00 GMT) and recently you have been posting eight to ten hours later.

Clive RobinsonAugust 13, 2008 3:39 PM

@ Omnifarious,

"conducting warfare on the behalf of an entity that can't even really be called a state is frequently simply disruption and fear"

If by that you mean "terorists" etc there is actually little evidence that they have had any success at it (think sarin attack in Japanease metro).

Although it appears realativly easy to brew up large quantities of biological agent (think beer making) in most cases it is not easy at all.

First you have to be able to get your "seed" agent which in the past involved little more than a credit card and a faxed order for a limited range of nasties.

Secondly you have to provide it with a suitable environment to grow at an acceptable rate (ie you are probably looking for around fifty galons of the agent not a fey micro grams).

Thirdly you have to be able to purify your end product (there is going to be mutation generaly into less desirable agents which might well reduce the potency)

Fourthly you have to be able to stabalise and package it (this is actually quite a difficult task and not many biological nasties lend themselves to this process).

Fithly you have to be able to deliver it to your target area in an effective manner (this depends very much on the biological agent and the intended target population).

All the while not getting infected yourself (you don't want to be either highly visable or incapable of delivering the agent due to being sick).

Although possible it involves a level os technical sophistication beyond your average suicide bomber.

Further it is also not a problem you can just throw money at, you need people with considerable experiance in these matters and they tend to have a certain self regard that tends not to make them suicide material.

GrahameAugust 13, 2008 3:45 PM


You need to read the whole thing - they do the analysis several times over for different kinds of actors and different kinds of goals.

Stratfor is good - worth subscribing to their services.

ChrisAugust 13, 2008 4:04 PM

"because conventional munitions proved to provide more bang for the buck"

This is a bit misleading, at least using the common definition of 'conventional weapons'. During the Cold War, bioweapons weren't really being evaluated against conventional high-explosive munitions, but against nuclear and chemical weapons.

BetaAugust 13, 2008 4:15 PM

@Clive Robinson: "During the second world war the U.K. Tested anthrax on a Scotish island, which showed it had little practical use as a general delivery weapon. The fact that they where happy to leave the island contaminated for close on the next fifty years before finally cleaning the island says a great deal about the (lack of) effectivness of anthrax."

From what I read, they weren't happy to leave it contaminated, they were unable to decontaminate it. That was part of the reason they didn't pursue development of anthrax as a weapon; bombing a city flat is one thing, rendering it uninhabitable for decades is something else.

Clive RobinsonAugust 13, 2008 4:38 PM

@ Beta,

Yes and No, the U.K. Gov where deaply unhappy about the potential it had to cause them significant embarisment. However they actually took little or no action to prevent people going to the island if they where foolish enough to do so.

When the U.K. Gov perceived that they had a responsability to clean it up they finaly got around to doing it (the method used could just as easily have been used imediatly after they infected the island).

The problem with anthrax is that it forms spours that can live for a considerable period of time which makes it ideal as an agent to "salt the ground" but it is actually quite inefective if you walked through a field that had been recently contaminated the chance of you kicking up enough spours to inhale or stay on the skin in sufficient quantity to kill you befor you receive medical help is actually very low.

Cattle and especialy sheep get contaminated by ingestion of grass with the spours on. Sheep are more suceptable due to the way they eat grass right down to ground level. Cattle on the other hand tend to tear grass off at a higher level. After even quite moderate rain the majority of the spours will be washed down to or below ground level where they are effectivly usless as a weapon. It is only when the ground is disturbed that the spours tend to get back into the environment in a way they can cause humans harm.

RoyAugust 13, 2008 6:05 PM

Some of the nuttiness is due to the imagination of Hollywood writers.

Everybody knows that bombs have a red wire and LEDs downcounting to zero, with a buzzer to warn people it's too late to escape, that robots see by shining lights out their eyes, and that one heroic cowpoke with a six-shooter can kill fifty Indian riflemen without reloading.

Hollywood plots and their gimmicks were no doubt what was behind the idea of using a fentanyl aerosol in the Moscow theater hostage crisis, which they magically thought would put everybody safely to sleep, even though the inhaled dosages might range anywhere across many orders of magnitude, while the difference between the effective and fatal is small.

Hollywood likes poison gas, radiation, and lethal biologicals for the colorful special effects, so that irridescent green or red maps the dispersal nicely for the camera. Additionally, these are things the public is aware of but knows next to nothing factual about them.

By the way, the most deadly biological attack would come in the form of turning government forces against their own people, slaughtering them by the millions.

Davi OttenheimerAugust 13, 2008 7:49 PM

"The goal of warriors conducting warfare on the behalf of an entity that can't even really be called a state is frequently simply disruption and fear."

Hey, you mean kind of like the Joker? Batman stands for some fundamental principles that he can not break, but the Joker has no aim other than disruption and fear. Did I get that right?

If only a comic-book analysis of the world were so easy.

In the real world we watched George W. Bush and buddies advocate "shock and awe" as they launched explosive violence in order to cause massive disruption and global fear. Then they dismantled every trace of infrastructure they found and shook down all social systems. At the same time they left huge caches of weapons up for grabs, and hired a bunch of long-shot gamblers and private armies to see what would happen when they started breaking all the rules, even in America.

Hmmm, where's the Batman in this picture?

I guess instead of Batman and the Joker I could have also compared the comment to the First Barons' War, which some argue King John initiated through disruption and fear, but other say was a justified response to threats from an entity that can't even really be called a state...but then I'd get into the shameful role of Pope Innocent III (hardly innocent) and the Magna Carta and all that boring reality stuff.

wAugust 13, 2008 8:23 PM

@ anonymous

so the other ten misspellings didn't bother you, or you just wanted to start with something manageable?

FrancesAugust 13, 2008 9:36 PM

Mr. Robinson is obviously a very intelligent man and writes very well but he can't spell for beans and apparently doesn't have a spell checker. So, either we complain about it constantly or just put up with it, which seems to be what most posters are doing.

Davi OttenheimerAugust 13, 2008 9:37 PM

Perhaps I should have posted my earlier comment here instead:

After re-reading the linked article I am very curious why the authors of this article refer to biological and chemical weapons when writing about al Qaeda (e.g. Midhat Mursi al-Sayid Umar), but only mention biological threats in their final analysis.

America argued for the right to maintain chemical weapons, even as they banned biological in the 1970s, no?

That seems to suggest more to the issue than is explained. In other words the authors have cleverly skirted the chemical issue even though the US chose to keep producing chemical weapons rather than biological weapons. Most countries treated chemical and biological the same until the US advocated separation. So when the authors say Russia had the largest stockpile of biological in the world until the 1980s, they are really saying the US managed to limit Russia's program while extending their own. Seems like a highly political, if not ideologically based set of events, no?

Incidentally a chemical threat does not face distribution issues if stockpiles are already widely exposed without security regulation, as explained here:

"'In order to please their cronies in the chemical industry, the Bush administration is willing to put the health and safety of millions of people at risk,' said Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.)."

howardAugust 13, 2008 9:39 PM

There is an excellent germ warfare chapter in the book “Plague Time: How Stealth Infections Cause Cancer, Heart Disease, and Other Deadly Ailments” by Paul W. Ewald published in 2000 and thus not influenced by the anthrax fears of 9/11. There is an excellent rational for the in effectiveness for germ warfare.
ALSO: Compare the relative effectiveness of the anthrax letters to the 2 shooters and a rifle poking out the trunk. Then consider the costs and training needed. We’ve seen neither happen again. BTW I rate Ewald’s book 5 stars based on the rest of the content.

AnonymousAugust 13, 2008 11:21 PM


They were the ones that disrupted my reading flow to the point of having to go back and re-read the sentences in question.

@ Frances

Yes, you're right.

@ Clive

Sorry for the spelling snark. But please, try a spell checker.

I'll shut up now.

AnonymousAugust 14, 2008 3:59 AM


Sorry, but I'm also constantly irritated by your many spelling errors :}

On the up-side I often find your comments quite interesting :D

WiredAugust 14, 2008 6:21 AM

Aside from the popular outrage against biological and chemical weapons coming out of WW1 & WW2 & Korea, the reason the US and others mostly stopped biological weapons programs was because while cheap to produce and deliver, the facilities to ensure safe handling long-term were expensive to maintain, the threat of the use of the biologicals did not compute with many uneducated 3rd world countries, and if used, the fatalities were unpredictable and the possibility for spread of the disease and unexpected mutations was way too high. Check with the CDC. Biological weapons work, and work well. They are just too unpredictable, so our military would prefer chemical, conventional, or nuclear because they know exactly what those weapons will do. Precision weapons is the goal.

NostromoAugust 14, 2008 7:32 AM

The United States did not stop trying to develop anthrax and other pathogens into weapons of mass destruction; they have spent at least 60 years on it, with large teams of highly-qualified researchers (we are told that "over 100" scientists had access to the strain used in the attacks for which Ivins is now blamed). After all this effort, the outcome is not very impressive - the attacks killed IIRC just 5 people. Terrorist groups don't have the resources of the US Government and will not be able to do as well as that. We can ignore this risk.

By the way, I wish the Bush regime would stop blathering about "terrorists and rogue states developing weapons of mass destruction". I'm running out of sick bags.

bobAugust 14, 2008 7:52 AM

@Jackson: I recently viewed the remake of "Andromeda Strain". It wasn't particularly good, the biggest improvement was the more easily understood "A precedes B precedes C which is followed by D the end" format compared to the original movie which jumped around more like DNA coding. (adcbbadabaccda etc)

However I found the most interesting aspect of the movie was the "pre-watergate" philosphy of the old movie portraying the government as being the good guy, investigating in public and out to protect the common good vice the new movie making the government a series of overlapping layers of clandestine bad guys out to create empires and 'whacking' people who get in the way without a moment's hesitation.

FPAugust 14, 2008 9:22 AM

One reason that biological weapons inspire such fear in the general public is the belief that it is easy to engineer a deadly disease that spreads like the flu, with exponential infection rates.

See, e.g., Tom Clancy's "Executive Orders", where terrorists produce an airborne version of Ebola. Thanks to President Jack Ryan's quick actions to ground all travel, only a few thousand lives were lost, and the plan's mastermind was promptly bombed.

Or Richard Preston's Cobra Event, where a rogue American brews up superbugs in his home laboratory.

Davi OttenheimerAugust 14, 2008 12:49 PM

@ Nostromo

What do you say about US ratification of the "Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction"

If you are correct, the US is in violation of the Geneva Protocol and the Biological Weapons Convention as advocated by President Nixon. According to President Ford the US officially started compliance as of December 26, 1975.


I tend to agree, but I think the "precise" concept of weapons is more of a cultural and ideological phenomenon in America enforced by civilians, rather than a reality in weapons technology or a choice by the military. In other words the US military suppliers have created "precision" marketing to appease regulators and garner public support for targeting military threats, while avoiding civilians.

Consider the recent decision by the US State Department to continue the use, sale and transfer of existing cluster munitions for the next ten years while 111 other countries are ready to sign a convention banning their use.

America is said to have 5.5 million cluster bombs, containing more than 700 million submunitions. With a known failure rate of between 5 and 15 percent, which directly impact civilian populations, they even violate the FY 2008 Consolidated Appropriations Act, which calls for failure rates under 1 percent.

The authors' fall into a shallow interpretation of official weapon "effectiveness" and thus analyze the risks far too narrowly.

The millions of tons of insecticide being sprayed every day in America suggest a more plausible status of biological and chemical threats, if not weapons.

After all, chemical weapons were invented by a German insecticide researcher and thus are a byproduct of this industry. Anthrax itself might not be an imminent threat, but even if this one nail bends there is still a whole bag to contend with. Agent Orange was called a herbicide in Vietnam and is a confirmed cause of harm to veterans.

"To date, approximately 240,000 veterans have died from diseases caused by their exposure to Agent Orange/Dioxin and the number climbs every day. The continued use of 2,4-D today further exposes our families and children to the same chemical our veterans were exposed to in Vietnam. This exposure jeopardizes the health of our families, children and future generations, making them susceptible to the same diseases our veterans are dying from."

Stefano ZaneroAugust 14, 2008 2:53 PM

Actually, I see a weakness in Stratfor's analysis on the biological weaponry. They implicitly suppose a biological attack aimed to be controlled and non-suicidal, and therefore they opt to analyze anthrax, as opposed to more infective agents.

I think their whole threat model is upside down there. They are using a state-against-state threat model, not a model fit for terrorism.

I may be wrong here as I'm not a biologist and much less a bioweaponry expert, but more lethal and less controlled viral agents could be used and spread with much less constraints by people who are inclined to commit suicide in handling them.

This is not appropriate to expect of soldiers, but it's even too appropriate to expect of today's fanatical terrorists.

John GilmoreAugust 14, 2008 8:55 PM

A fascinating self-published history of US chemical warfare efforts at Edgewood Arsenal, by one of the scientists who did the work, is available. "Chemical Warfare: Secrets Almost Forgotten", by James S. Ketchum, M.D. ISBN 978-1-4243-0080-8. 360pp, hardcover. Available from:

ChemBooks, Inc
2304 Fairbanks Drive
Santa Rosa, CA 95403

$49.95 plus $10 s/h.

As a teaser, the foreword is by Sasha Shulgin, fellow chemist and discoverer of MDMA (Ecstacy). The book describes numerous mind-altering chemicals that the US military tested as non-lethal agents, including packaging them to be effective by inhalation, testing them in the desert, etc. It's full of photos from the time, and details from clinical trials with military volunteers. They tried LSD-like chemical weapons and ultimately settled on belladonna derivatives (BZ) for their predictability. He ends by debunking some popular misconceptions. BTW, if you think you're near a chemical or bio weapon attack, just walk away. "Soap, water, time, and fresh air" are effective countermeasures. The Japanese sarin attack killed only 12 out of the 1000 people in that subway station; pretty good odds for the folks at ground zero.

yonodelerAugust 15, 2008 1:20 AM

Some team somewhere knows how to produce anthrax optimized for lethality and proven to be highly effective. See Richard Spertzel's article here:
A basic question is, who has mastered the technology? Of course, the realm of government contractors engaged in development of optimized pathogens, purportedly for countermeasure development, is largely hidden from the public and the public's watchdogs.

yonodelerAugust 15, 2008 2:06 AM

Should the public live in fear of massive-scale anthrax attacks? No, nor should we be panicky about terror attacks of any size or kind. But expecting a government to employ sound methods and impeccable standards of conduct in investigating attacks that have used anthrax distribution or any other means, especially when a government program almost certainly was exploited if not implicated, is reasonable. Not having those expectations met gives cause to be uneasy, even absent any overarching conspiracy theory.

Fake51August 16, 2008 9:34 AM

"Hollywood plots and their gimmicks were no doubt what was behind the idea of using a fentanyl aerosol in the Moscow theater hostage crisis..."

Not true. Wanting to end the hostage situation and not caring about the public were the reasons behind.


TarkeelSeptember 2, 2008 2:40 AM

Some more comments on chemical/biological weapons from the register:

"A single kilogram of nerve agent is said to be enough to kill 100 million people, for instance.

That is actually true: but one would have to break the kilogram down into individual doses and administer them orally, without wasting so much as a tenth of a milligram. It would be far simpler to shoot one's victims or blow them up. Even strangling them barehanded would be easier. And this is generally the case with chemical weapons."

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