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August 6, 1997

Biological Warfare: A Historical Perspective

Author Affiliations

From the Operational Medicine Division, US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, Fort Detrick, Md.

JAMA. 1997;278(5):412-417. doi:10.1001/jama.1997.03550050074036

The deliberate use of microorganisms and toxins as weapons has been attempted throughout history. Biological warfare has evolved from the crude use of cadavers to contaminate water supplies to the development of specialized munitions for battlefield and covert use. The modern development of biological agents as weapons has paralleled advances in basic and applied microbiology. These include the identification of virulent pathogens suitable for aerosol delivery and industrial-scale fermentation processes to produce large quantities of pathogens and toxins. The history of biological warfare is difficult to assess because of a number of confounding factors. These include difficulties in verification of alleged or attempted biological attacks, the use of allegations of biological attacks for propaganda purposes, the paucity of pertinent microbiological or epidemiologic data, and the incidence of naturally occurring endemic or epidemic diseases during hostilities. Biological warfare has been renounced by 140 nations, primarily for strategic and other pragmatic reasons. International diplomatic efforts, including the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, have not been entirely effective in preventing the enhancement and proliferation of offensive biological warfare programs. The threats posed by biological weapons are likely to continue into the future.

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