Bioterrorism Agents: Overview

Bioterrorism agents are harmful biological, or living, organisms (bacteria, viruses, or toxins) used intentionally to cause injury or death in humans, animals, or plants.

The Weapons of Fort Detrick

* and perhaps genetically engineered viruses * and bacteria. * It also called for team exercises that simulated (faked) attacks by hostile groups. Although the United States signed the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) agreement in 1972 that prohibits the use of such agents in global warfare, federal authorities in the early 21st century justified this military activity as defensive against others who might engage in bioterrorism.

What Is Bioterrorism?

Also known as biological warfare, bioterrorism is a form of warfare that uses specific microorganisms * to deliberately cause illness or death in people, animals, or plant crops. When organisms are used in this way, they become weapons.

The History of Bioterrorism

Biological warfare is not new to the 21st century; it has a long and deadly history. Persian, Greek, and Roman writers tell of the use of animal cadavers to contaminate water supplies. In 1155 at the battle of Tortona, the Holy Roman Emperor Barbarossa dumped the corpses of soldiers into wells to poison the water. In 1346 the Mongols catapulted the corpses of plague victims into the port city of Kaffa (later called Theodosia, also spelled Feodosia, in Ukraine) on the Black Sea in the Crimea, causing an epidemic; the city surrendered. During the French and Indian Wars in the 18th century in North America, the British gave blankets contaminated with smallpox to Native Americans, leading to an epidemic * of the disease among the indigenous people.

The Mongols and the British troops did not know that certain microorganisms cause disease. They knew only that disease was rumored to have spread from dead bodies or, in the case of smallpox, even from the blankets that touched victims. People did not know that microorganisms cause infectious disease until 1876, when the German scientist Robert Koch (1843–1910) proved that anthrax (AN-thraks) bacterium causes the disease anthrax *

Many people believe that well-funded terrorists can afford to purchase equipment to build biological weapons or that it will be sold when ordered. Some countries—especially those harboring or supporting known terrorist groups—continue to manufacture and store stockpiles of dangerous microorganisms. The use of bioterrorism to wage warfare is favored among terrorists because it requires few resources compared with traditional warfare and can potentially harm large numbers of people.

Over the course of a few days, cutaneous anthrax develops into a sore with a coalblack center.

Over the course of a few days, cutaneous anthrax develops into a sore with a coalblack center.
Science Source.

How Can Biological Agents Be Spread?

Deadly microorganisms (also known as biological agents or bioweapons) can be spread purposely through the air or food and water supplies, or by intentionally infecting someone with a highly contagious agent and letting that person circulate in a community, starting a massive wave of disease. The agent could be disseminated in any busy public place with the intention of infecting many people who then travel to various destinations unintentionally spreading the disease.

Some organisms can be aerosolized (AIR-o-suh-lized), meaning that they are processed into the tiniest of particles, in a wet or dry form, that can be sprayed or released into the air so that large numbers of people can inhale them. Aerosolized organisms can be dispersed by aerosol containers, small crop-dusting planes, ventilation systems, or contamination of an object that can carry disease throughout a region, such as the anthraxtainted letters received by various government and media employees in the United States.

The handling and release of many of these organisms are dangerous and could be deadly for potential terrorists trying to use them. Some harmful biological organisms become weakened as they spread into water or food supplies, making them less likely to cause significant harm to anyone who comes into contact with them. For example, a person would have to inhale thousands of anthrax spores * to become sick. A terrorist group trying to use anthrax as a bioweapon would have to use a highly concentrated form to be able to harm large numbers of people via contaminated packages or envelopes. Some bioterrorism agents, such as the smallpox virus, can be spread from person to person.

What Are Potential Biological Agents?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) separates biological organisms into categories according to their virulence (VEER-uh-lents), or ability to cause disease. Potential biologic agents used for terrorism are divided into three categories.

Category A

Category A, or high-priority agents, can be easily disseminated or transmitted from person to person, cause high death rates, cause public panic and social disruption, and require special action for public health preparedness. Category A agents include:


Books and Articles

Spiers, Edward M. A History of Chemical and Biological Weapons. London: Reaktion Books, 2010.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “First Hours: Bioterrorism Agents.” CDC Emergency Preparedness and Response. (accessed April 8, 2016).

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Dirty Bombs.” Emergency Preparedness and Response. (accessed April 8, 2016).

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “General Fact Sheets on Specific Bioterrorism Agents.” . (accessed April 8, 2016).


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 1600 Clifton Rd., Atlanta, GA 30329. Toll-free: 800-232-4636. Website: (accessed April 8, 2016).

* microbes (MY-krobes) are microscopic living organisms, such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi.

* viruses (VY-rus-sez) are tiny infectious agents that can cause infectious diseases. A virus can reproduce only within the cells it infects.

* bacteria (bak-TEER-ee-uh) are single-celled microorganisms, which typically reproduce by cell division. Some, but not all, types of bacteria can cause disease in humans. Many types can live in the body without causing harm.

* microorganisms are tiny organisms that can be seen only using a microscope. Types of microorganisms include fungi, bacteria, and viruses.

* epidemic (eh-pih-DEH-mik) is an outbreak of disease, especially infectious disease, in which the number of cases suddenly becomes far greater than usual. Usually epidemics are outbreaks of diseases in specific regions, whereas widespread epidemics are called pandemics.

* anthrax (AN-thraks) is a rare infectious disease caused by the bacterium Bacillus anthracis.

* spores are a temporarily inactive form of a germ enclosed in a protective shell.

* gastrointestinal (gas-tro-in-TEStih-nuhl) means having to do with the organs of the digestive system, the system that processes food. It includes the mouth, esophagus, stomach, intestines, colon, rectum, and other organs involved in digestion, including the liver and pancreas.

* lesions (LEE-zhuns) is a general term referring to a sore or a damaged or irregular area of tissue.

* vaccination (vak-sih-NAY-shun), is giving, usually by an injection, a preparation of killed or weakened germs, or a part of a germ or product it produces, to prevent or lessen the severity of the disease caused by that germ. Also called immunization.

* vaccine (vak-SEEN) is a preparation of killed or weakened germs, or a part of a germ or product it produces, given to prevent or lessen the severity of the disease that can result if a person is exposed to the germ itself.

* toxin is a substance that causes harm to the body.

* paralysis (pah-RAH-luh-sis) is the loss or impairment of the ability to move some part of the body.

* respiratory failure is a condition in which breathing and oxygen delivery to the body are dangerously altered. This may result from infection, nerve or muscle damage, poisoning, or other causes.

* antitoxin (an-tih-TOK-sin) counteracts the effects of toxins, or poisons, on the body. It is produced to act against specific toxins, such as those made by the bacteria that cause botulism or diphtheria.

* lymph nodes (LIMF) are small, bean-shaped masses of tissue containing immune system cells that fight harmful microorganisms. Lymph nodes may swell during infections.

* respiratory tract includes the nose, mouth, throat, and lungs. It is the pathway through which air and gases are transported down into the lungs and back out of the body.

* shock is a serious condition in which blood pressure is very low and not enough blood flows to the body's organs and tissues. Untreated, shock may result in death.

* sputum (SPYOO-tum) is a substance that contains mucus and other matter coughed out from the lungs, bronchi, and trachea.

* septic shock is shock due to overwhelming infection and is characterized by decreased blood pressure, internal bleeding, heart failure, and, in some cases, death.

* pneumonia (nu-MO-nyah) is inflammation of the lungs.

* tetanus (TET-nus) is a serious bacterial infection that affects the body's central nervous system.

* rickettsial infections are caused by microorganisms that are similar to bacteria and viruses. Infectious agents include Rickettsia, Orientia, Ehrlichia, Neorickettsia, Neoehrlichia, and Anaplasma.

* encephalitis is swelling and irritation of the brain, usually because of an infection.

* genetic engineering is manually changing the makeup of an organism's genes.

Disclaimer:   This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.

(MLA 8th Edition)