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The ABCs of biological warfare and terror agents

Biological warfare and bioterrorism are as old as fourth-century BCE Scythian fighters wiping their arrows on decomposing bodies before shooting them at their enemies and as new as ricin toxin delivered to a US Senate mailroom in 2004. They consist of using viruses, bacteria, fungi and other toxic agents to kill or incapacitate people, either individually or en masse.

The signing of the Geneva Protocol by 108 nations about more than 80 years ago to prohibit the use of biological agents did not prevent the use of biological weapons by armies or terrorists. They were used by Viet Cong guerillas in Vietnam, allegedly stocked by Iraq during Operation Desert Storm, Japanese cults and terrorists in Britain. Because of the ongoing threat, the relative ease in delivery and difficulty in containment, many Western countries including Israel carry out drills to prepare their emergency teams to cope with any such disaster.

Theoretically, over 1,000 different biological substances could be utilized to harm people, but many are unavailable on a large scale or not easy to use. But as they are microscopic agents, only a very small amount is needed to wipe out hundreds of thousands of people in an urban area. This concentration and the fact that they have no smell, color or taste make it easy for bioterrorists to purchase, hide and use.

The methods of delivery include explosives such as bombs and missiles that explode and spread their deadly contents; dispersed in the air; absorbed by or injected into the the skin; and introduced into water or food. The faster the symptoms are detected by doctors and other experts, the more people can be saved.

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