Biological Weapons: Smallpox as a Weapon


Biological Weapons: Smallpox as a Weapon

Warfare from times past has been a devastating aspect of Human behavior where a population tries to conquer another through different means, all ending in chaotic and sometimes devastating consequences. Warfare in its different forms is potentially dangerous not only to the immediate populace intended, but to other populations outside direct contact/effect. At times, the resultant consequences were carried on to other generations to come. It is often because of disagreements emanating from ideological differences, nationalist ideals, attacks and counter-attacks, and sovereignty perceptions. Warfare may be carried out using mechanical weapons such as bombs, bullets and artilleries amongst others, or may be carried out through more subtle means such as through biological warfare (Riedel, 2004).

Biological weapons came as a relief for many parties who wanted to participate or had to participate in any form of warfare. Biological weapons were difficult to control because it caught people unawares. In addition, it is hard to immediately know where the biological weapon can be launched from because it can be launched from different places at the same time. Biological weapons cause many fatalities and long-lasting injuries, such as blindness and other bodily impairments. Initially, warfare was conducted using weapons, such as guns, bombs and other forms of armory. However, the effectiveness of biological weapons caused a change in the way warfare was conducted.

It is through the latter means that deadly diseases such as smallpox, anthrax and a host of other diseases are spread, with the sole intention of generating devastating consequences to the perceived enemy. Smallpox, being one of the most deadly and devastating diseases ever discovered, could and is at times used as a weapon in biological warfare. It has historically, been one of the most devastating diseases ever known to Mankind and only came under control through the outstanding efforts  of the WHO – World Health Organization. Its decimation of huge populations finally ended in its control and eradication in the year 1977 ( Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2001).

However, recent developments have re-ignited the threat of both chemical and biological warfare. Events in recent history, including those in the Middle East and Afghanistan, coupled with the devastating consequences of the attack on 11 September 2011 on the World Trade Centre all espouse the real and eminent danger posed by biological warfare. In Atlanta, Georgia (U.S.A), where the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are located, there have been developed classifications of various diseases and organisms that would be used as potential weapons in biological warfare. The categorization is divided into three spheres according to the diseases’ possible use and consequent impacts on the public populace and its health (Riedel, 2004).

Accordingly, Smallpox is classified as belonging to group A; this being an indication of its ease in dissemination and transmission amongst people and the subsequent deadly resultant effects that usually lead to soaring mortality rates. Historically, its inception is traceable to Europe, between the 5th and 7th Centuries AD. Its endemic nature ravaged throughout the middle Ages. Specifically so, it proved to be a great cause for concern, as it affected populations on a larger scale especially so, during the 17th and 18th Centuries. Only through the medical procedure of inoculation through the introduction of cowpox to the European populace, was the disease’s potential threat diminished largely.

Vaccination of the European populace greatly reduced the disease’s threat as an agent of biological warfare. However, there was realization that vaccination did not offer immunity on a lifelong spectrum, as there was need for successive revaccination of the populations for greater effect. Mortality rates being on a downward trend indicated the success in curbing of this deadly disease. However, the habitual re-occurrence of epidemics conclusively indicated that the potentially fatal disease was still out of human control (Barquet & Domingo, 1997).

A worldwide campaign, under the WHO’s guardianship, was able to finally succeed in the eradication of the disease in 1977. The disease, having had catastrophic consequences in 63 states; these especially in Africa and Asia had necessitated the aforementioned collective action. Subsequently, the WHO, through various expert committees, suggested a global exercise of destroying the existing stocks of the variola virus in all laboratories worldwide. It was suggested however that future and continuing research was necessary, thus the need to retain the virus at two permitted facilities, these being the CDC in Atlanta (the U.S.A), and in the Institute of Virus Preparations located in Moscow Russia ( Institute of Medicine (IM), 1999).

Consequently, the virus is still kept, safely at the two facilities for further studies and experimentation. However, concerns have arisen, especially amongst Western states, as to the potential use of the virus for biological warfare. This has been as a result of allegations forwarded by Ken Alibek, a past deputy director at the former USSR’s bio-weapons program, who is of the opinion that there was an expansion in the USSR’s bio-weapons research program that eventually resulted in the Union’s ability to weaponize the disease. The research, conducted in remote Siberia, is not entirely known and hence cannot be conclusively substantiated. Reduced financial support for the research program had led to the conclusion that both existing equipment and expertise would fall into wrong hands being informed by the presence and spread of terrorism to a global level (Fenner, Henderson, Arita, Jezek, & Ladnyi, 1988).

In the event of a release of the disease in a clandestine manner, the disease which spreads rapidly through its expanding factor of 10-20 times with every existing case, it would swiftly spread to the existing highly vulnerable populations. In addition, the presence of Smallpox spreading within hospitals and other health centers is recognized as being a grave problem. In its aerosolized form, the disease is highly and easily spread, thus posing a severe threat in health facilities and the open public spheres in general. However, contingency plans exist for such outbreaks, with patients being isolated at either their homes or various non-health facilities.

With no existing antiviral substances being proven as potential antidotes for effective treatment of an outbreak, the only reasonable and workable solutions used in the control of the disease’s outbreak centers around both surveillance and containment procedures. Those in contact or having been in contact are also isolated and given priority to enable containment of the disease. Vaccination is successive within 4 days of initial exposure after which there is a general decline in successive eradication and prevention of spread. Decontamination is also useful especially of the environment where cases were reported and identified (Barquet & Domingo, 1997).

In retro-respect however, even though the disease was successively eradicated in the 1980s, there is present a great margin in its complete containment as it still is and remains a favored choice in both bioterrorism and bio-warfare. Coupled with this, is its potentially high mortality toll because of its effectiveness at causing key impacts in public health. As a result, public panic often ensues with social disintegration and disruption consequently taking place. International criminal organizations, terrorist groups and even hostile state agencies, can get small doses of the virus released to the public for their ulterior motives especially so with the development and ease of spread of aerosolized Smallpox.

Different models exist as responses to emergency cases with however many uncertainties being present. No model presently in existence is able to truly predict and therefore contain a potential outbreak. Conversely though, the early detection of an outbreak, the immediate isolation of those infected, the subsequent surveillance of those in contact with the infected, and a selective and focused program of vaccination are the best and most effective means of countering and controlling the spread of the disease (Fenner, Henderson, Arita, Jezek, & Ladnyi, 1988).

In conclusion, smallpox can be used as a deadly weapon. This can lead to many deaths of people and cause long-standing impairments to others. However, the use of smallpox as a weapon requires strategy and a lot of knowledge to ensure that it works. Nevertheless, the efficiency of biological weaponry programs lie majorly on the levels of awareness and education of both the medical and public spheres; this in tandem with the accessibility of sufficient medical and equipment supplies necessary for the virus’s treatment. Finally, to truly and effectively safeguard against the occurrence of such tragedies, there is the need for provision of ample vaccine stockpiles in strategic areas of the global arena.



Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2001). Vaccinia (smallpox) vaccine: recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP). Atlanta: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Institute of Medicine (IM). (1999). Assessment of Future Scientific Need for Live Variola Virus. Institute of Medicine Conference. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Barquet, N., & Domingo, P. (1997). Smallpox: the triumph over the most terrible of the ministers of death. Ann International Medical:127 (8 Pt 1), 635–642.

Fenner, F., Henderson, D. A., Arita, I., Jezek, Z., & Ladnyi, I. (1988). Smallpox and Its Eradication. World Health Organization. Geneva: WHO Publishers.

Riedel, S. (2004). Biological warfare and bioterrorism: a historical review. BUMC Proceedings (17), 400-406.



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