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The Ethics of Biowarfare

Daniel Reyes


Nations need to take preventative measures to curb the development and proliferation of biological and chemical weapons, such as:

  • adopting a scientific code of ethics
  • incorporating ethics into graduate science courses
  • formulating accountability mechanisms for research
  • raising academic, industry, and public awareness of ethical issues

February 2003

Introduction: A Modern Day Trojan Horse

The 2001 anthrax scare in the U.S. brought the biowarfare issue to the fore.

Although the envelope resembled a letter from a fourth grade student, the contents addressed to U.S. Senator Tom Daschle were life threatening. Laced within the envelope was a form of the bacteria known as Bacillus Anthracis, bacteria more commonly known as anthrax. When exposed to humans, an anthrax infection leads to the release of toxins, which if not properly treated are fatal.1 Around the same time of Senator Daschle’s threat, other cases of anthrax exposure were publicized. Through these events, the public was introduced to a new terror — chemical and biological weapons.

Chemical and biological weapons are called “the poor man’s atomic bomb.”

Some call such weaponry “the poor man’s atomic bomb” — its construction is cheaper and its effects are potentially as far-reaching and devastating. The ability to manufacture chemical or biological threats is relatively much easier and its availability more widespread that nuclear weapons. Because of this, many believe any future terrorist attacks might include biological/chemical weapons similar to anthrax. Though seemingly a new threat, similar weaponry has been the subject of debate for decades.

1) The organism, called _Bacillus Anthracis,_ is grown in the lab. 2) Removed from a nutrient-rich environment, the bacteria turns into spores, which naturally clump together. 3) Spores are purified, separated, and concentrated. 4) Spores are combined with fine dust particles to maintain separation and increase time they can suspend in the air. 5) The powdery mixture is put into an envelope. 6) When released into the air, a high concentration of spores can be drawn deep into the lungs. The spores return to their bacteria state and a rapidly developing anthrax infection releases deadly toxins. (

Biological/chemical weaponry overview

Such weapons can involve organisms that carry disease or toxic substances.

“Biological warfare is the intentional use of disease-causing microorganisms or other entities that can replicate themselves (e.g., viruses, infectious nucleic acids and prions) against humans, animals or plants for hostile purposes. It may also involve the use of toxins: poisonous substances produced by living organisms…plants…and animals. If they are utilized for warfare purpose, the synthetically manufactured counterparts of these toxins are biological weapons.”2

Delivery of such substances can be as easy as sending it via mail, as in the anthrax example, or as sophisticated as mounting a chemical warhead onto a missile. Other possible means of delivery include introducing a substance to a water supply or through air dispersal in the form of gas.

As far back as the 6th century BC, warring nations have been involved with the use of biological weaponry.3 Despite its long history, it is perhaps best to look at more recent events.

Biological warfare was used as far back as the 6th century BC.
  • With the better understanding of disease in the 20th century, various forms of chemical and biological weaponry emerged. For example, during World War I, poisonous gases were used4 in addition to anthrax applications by German operatives.2
  • Even more recently, radical groups have implemented various chemical agents with the intent of mass destruction. For example, in addition to the anthrax threat, in March of 1995, a nerve gas called sarin was released in a subway system of Japan.5

In such cases, it is clear that the endangerment of human life is wrong. However, stopping such activity is becoming increasingly more difficult with the continued development of chemical and biological weaponry by rogue parties and states.

Legal Issues: The Chemical Weapons Convention

The United Nations provides protocols for weapons of mass destruction.

In 1992, in order to curb the proliferation of chemical and biological war agents, members of the United Nations agreed upon the text of the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on Their Destruction — more simply, the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). It is, most simply put, an extension of the Geneva Protocol of 1925 and the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention of 1972 (BTWC).

  • The Geneva Protocol called for the prohibition of the use of chemical and biological weapons in war.6
  • The BTWC outlawed biological and toxin weapons altogether and required their destruction.7
  • What the CWC added was more specific information regarding actual chemicals as well as provisions for assistance if chemical weapons are used on a cooperating state.8
Research for vaccines is allowed under the protocols.

The CWC and like-minded protocols have given an outline for cooperating states to follow. However, it is difficult to contend with groups who do not adhere to the CWC. Because the development and use of biological weapons continue throughout rogue states, the question arises on how to deal with the situation. Under the guidelines of the CWC, cooperating nations such as the United States are not allowed to develop, produce, or use chemical weapons. As such, the use of weapons by a cooperating state should not be an issue. In order to deal with the possible use of toxins against a nation under the CWC, research for vaccines is allowed.

A Code of Ethics

Biotechnology can lead to both harmful and beneficial outcomes.

Most people and nations agree that the use of biological or chemical weapons is unethical and morally wrong. So why are such weapons produced? One significant reason is that most biotechnology is dual-use, that is, it has both peaceful and harmful purposes. The same technology that gives us genetically engineered medicine can also give us military weapons.

A 2001 research study illustrates the dual-use dilemma:

A deadly mouse pox virus was created by accident.

In an effort to develop a contraceptive vaccine for purposes of pest control, scientists inadvertently created a potential bioweapon. Early this year, Australian researchers hypothesized that introducing a gene that creates large amounts of interleukin-4 (IL-4) into mice would stimulate antibodies against mouse eggs and render the animals infertile. IL-4 occurs naturally in the body, but an overabundance triggers an immune response. The researchers working on this study needed a vehicle to get the new gene incorporated into the mouse DNA. The scientists chose a benign mousepox virus as their vector and, to their surprise, the virus killed all of the mice in the study. IL-4 suppressed the immune system, making it unable to fight the mousepox virus. With no defensive launched by the immune system the virus was 100 percent lethal. The virus was significantly lethal even in mice vaccinated against this particular strain of mousepox. Mousepox is a virus equivalent to human smallpox. “It would be safe to assume that if some idiot did put human IL-4 into human smallpox they’d increase the lethality quite dramatically,” said Ronald J. Jackson in the Jan. 10, 2001 issue of theNew Scientist. Jackson is one of the researchers on the Australian study.9

When the conventions to ban such weapons were formulated, the world did not think these weapons had major military uses. Now, recent terrorist and scientific developments require stronger measures. For example:

Some fear that weapons engineered to target ethnic groups are a future possibility.
  • Especially controversial is the Human Genome Diversity Project, begun in 1993 to study the genetic variation across different human populations. The project could contribute to the understanding of human genetics and the improvement of human health. However, some critics of the project fear the information may be used to create weapons to target a particular racial or ethnic group. Although many researchers conclude that ethnic biological warfare is not a practical possibility today, they nevertheless caution that it cannot be ruled out in the future.
Agriculture could also be a target.
  • Weapons targeting specific varieties of plants and animals are a real possibility today. In regions where monoculture (large acreage of genetically-identical crops) is the norm, such weapons could destroy a nation’s agricultural output.
A code of ethics may prevent harmful applications of biotechnology.

One of the proposals put forth by some nations, including the U.S., is to institutionalize a code of ethics for scientists working with potentially dangerous pathogens and toxins. Scientists would be required to foresee potential dangerous applications of their work and to either discontinue the research or redirect their work. In 2002, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) conducted an online survey (English-only sites) of how many scientific organizations worldwide had a code of ethics. The Institute discovered a code of ethics for the following:10

  • 11% of 71 international scientific organizations
  • 12% of 267 national or regional scientific organizations
Ethics codes currently in existence are not well publicized.

Ethics is about recognizing that there are some things we cannot and will not support or do. Codes of ethics have been around for a long time in the sciences. Perhaps the best-known one is the doctor’s Hippocratic Oath, which states “I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody if asked for it, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect.” The Stimson Center, a security think-tank organization, offers some of the reasons why ethics codes in the sciences are not well established:11

  • codes are not particularly well publicized
  • science students are not sufficiently educated in such codes at universities
  • codes that are already in place vary in form from good to poor among scientific organizations

Another consideration for a code that prohibits scientists from working on dangerous substances with potential military applications — How can scientists know in advance the outcome of their experiments or all future applications of their work? Einstein had no idea that his work would lead to the atomic bomb.

In addition to ethical codes, there are other ways to increase ethical awareness:10

Education and resources in ethics are needed.
  • inclusion of ethical content and decision-making instruction in scientific curricula
  • online ethical resources
  • ethical awareness campaigns conducted by professional science organizations
  • workshops for industry, academia, and scientists on the interface between research and business ethics
  • ongoing discussion in scientific journals and the mainstream press
  • accountability mechanisms and public oversight of research
  • provision of confidential ethical mentoring services
  • protection for whistle-blowers


Stronger treaty guidelines and codes of ethics should be formulated.

With the current evolution of potential threats, the issue of biological and chemical weaponry is a very important one. Ethical issues regarding war in general are a paper in and of itself. The use of weapons comes down to whether or not it is morally acceptable and ethically responsible to do harm to another person. And essentially, the destruction of human life is unacceptable in most areas of the world. Just like nuclear weapons, the potential for mass destruction using biological/toxin weapons is too great a threat. The CWC is right in imposing its guidelines. However, because the threat of biotechnological attacks exist, it is also important to develop and implement a global scientific code of conduct to curb the proliferation of such weaponry.

In conclusion: Education is the key to raise the ethical consciousness of bioscientists.

One organization, the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), believes that the education of young scientists is an important step in the elimination of weapons of mass destruction. FAS would like to see first-year science graduate students taking at least one course on the essentials of treaties, laws, regulations, and other programs designed to control biological warfare. This, FAS believes, would “raise the ethical consciousness of bioscientists, increase their awareness of the potential for hostile or dangerous exploitation of biotechnology, and persuade them of their responsibility to take action whenever possible to prevent it.”12

Daniel Reyes, from San Jose, California, is currently a senior Computer Engineering student at Santa Clara University, CA, with an emphasis on software development. He plans to graduate in June 2003. His interests include technology, sports, and graphic design. This article is based on his ethics course research paper.

The Ethics of Biowarfare

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Quick historical facts from 6th BC to 2001.

NOVA’s Bioterror

The companion website to NOVA’s Bioterror television series (11/01) provides information about global bioweapons, the history of biowarfare, and other topics, including interviews with biowarriors. For teacher: a teacher’s guide is available online to accompany the series.

Plague Wars

A 1998 Frontline/PBS collaborative that details how viruses and bacteria have been developed/used as bioweapons and the history of bioweapons.

Federation of American Scientists

Founded in 1945, FAS is “dedicated to the responsible use of science and technology” and “engages in analysis and public education on a broad range of science, technology, and public policy issues, including weapons nonproliferation and information technologies.”

United Nations

Information on disarmament issues, resources, and research.

Nuclear, Biological, & Chemical Warfare

This site aims to be “the most comprehensive” links site on the the subject.”

Biowarfare issues

The Center for Arms Control and Non-proliferation “was originally formed…in 1962 by eminent nuclear physicist Leo Szilard and other scientists who pioneered the development of atomic weapons and became concerned about their use and spread.” Today the Center devotes its efforts to “enhancing peace and security in the 21st century.”

Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)

Includes information on The Chemical Weapons Convention.

Center for Domestic Preparedness

Train at the nation’s premier all-hazards training center! FEMA’s Center for Domestic Preparedness (CDP), located in Anniston, Alabama, is the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS)’s only federally chartered Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) training center.

Universal peace campaigns

Information on how to participate in one of the campaigns for world peace, organized by the Hague Appeal for Peace. Includes a calendar of public events (access it by selecting “get involved” from their home page).


Teaching Resources from the Northwest Association for Biomedical Research (NWABR)

The Northwest Association for Biomedical Research (NWABR) strengthens public trust in research through education and dialogue. Its diverse membership spans academic, industry, non-profit research institutes, health care, and voluntary health organizations. Through membership and extensive education programs, it fosters a shared commitment to the ethical conduct of research and ensures the vitality of the life sciences community.

Ethics Primer
The Ethics Primer provides engaging, interactive, and classroom-friendly lesson ideas for integrating ethical issues into a science classroom. It also provides basic background on ethics as a discipline, with straightforward descriptions of major ethical theories. Several decision-making frameworks are included to help students apply reasoned analysis to ethical issues.
Bioethics 101
Bioethics 101 provides a systematic, five-lesson introductory course to support educators in incorporating bioethics into the classroom through the use of sequential, day-to-day lesson plans. This curriculum is designed to help science teachers in guiding their students to analyze issues using scientific facts, ethical principles, and reasoned judgment.
HIV Vaccines
Our HIV Vaccine Curriculum Unit focuses on engaging students in considering the elements of a vaccine trial. Students explore the life cycle and structure of HIV, different vaccine types, ethical issues related to research studies with human participants, and global contexts of vaccine trials.

Bioterrorism: Becoming an Informed Citizen

Students will work in groups of 6-7 to investigate six of the most common biological weapons and create a new section to the student’s textbooks on them.

Preparing for Bioterror

This lesson plan focuses on how America is preparing to respond to a potential bioterrorist attack.

  1. “D.C. postal anthrax contamination worse than first thought.” CNN online, December 21, 2001:
  2. Rotfeld, Adam. Nov. 2001. Biotechnology Fact Sheet: Biotechnology and the Future of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention. Written for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). PDF file. (June 29, 2009: link no longer available.)
  3. Hardy, Henry. 2001. Biological Weapons FAQ v. 0.51. (accessed 2/03; no longer available online)
  4. Fotion, Nicholas. 1990. Military Ethics: Looking Toward the Future. Hoover Press Publications.
  5. EmergencyNet NEWS Service (ENN). March 19, 1995. “Terrorist Attack in Tokyo” press release. May 22, 2010 No longer available.
  6. “The Geneva Protocol.” 1925.
  7. “The Biological/Toxin Weapons Convention.” 1972. (link no longer available).
  8. Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Feb. 2001. “The Chemical Weapons Convention.” (July 19, 2009: link no longer available.)
  9. Nowak, R. “Killer virus: An engineered mouse virus leaves us one step away from the ultimate bioweapon.” New Scientist Online News, Jan. 10, 2001.
  10. Simon, Jacqueline. Oct. 2000. “Filling the cracks in the code: the role of ethical codes in warfare-applicable research.” Presented at the 6th International Tsukuba Bioethics Roundtable, Japan. (June 29, 2009: link no longer available.)
  11. “Compliance Through Science.” 2000. Stimson Center Report No. 48.
  12. Federation of American Scientists. 2002. “Collaborative Project on the Biological Sciences: Risks, Responses & Responsibilities.” Press release. PDF file. (link no longer available).


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