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Biological Warfare: From History to Current Affairs

  1. Friedrich Frischknecht

Published Online: 15 JAN 2014

DOI: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0003290.pub3



How to Cite

Frischknecht, F. 2014. Biological Warfare: From History to Current Affairs. eLS. .

Author Information

  1. Heidelberg University, Heidelberg, Germany

  1. Based in part on the previous version of this eLS article ‘Biological Warfare: History and Current Developments’ (2005) by Joshua Lederberg.

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 15 JAN 2014


Biological warfare or terrorism is the deliberate distribution of biological agents in order to inflict harm on humans or animals or to damage plants. The biological agent used often causes an infectious disease. Throughout history there are examples of armies spreading diseases or using the natural presence of diseases to their own advantage. The most hideous example of biological warfare was the attacks of the Imperial Japanese army on Chinese civilians during the Second World War. Today, with little interstate conflict, organised or individual terrorism is feared to use disease-causing agents to cause havoc. Defending ourselves against this threat will call on new types of technological ingenuity combining rapid detection of the causing agents with rapid public health response. In this article, examples of biological warfare and terrorism are discussed and current debates on dual-use research are highlighted.

Key Concepts:

  • Infectious disease research can lead to a dual-use dilemma.

  • Stronger public health systems might be required for rapid responses against natural as well as deliberate spread of infections.

  • State-sponsored biological weapon or biodefence research can lead to individual biological terrorism.

  • Terrorists will not sign international treaties banning biological weapons.

  • International scientific collaborations will help in diminishing threats.

  • There will not ever be a 100% guarantee against getting sick from deliberate spread of infectious disease agents.

  • International treaties can help in diminishing threats from weapons of mass destructions; however, they take time, patience and money to implement.


  • biological warfare;
  • biological weapons;
  • infectious disease;
  • bioterrorism;
  • anthrax;
  • smallpox;
  • Biological and Toxin Weapon Convention;
  • influenza;
  • history of infectious diseases;
  • Anthrax letters