Biological Weapons: The Unseen WMD


By Andy Oppenheimer

Russia, China, and North Korea are among the states known to possess research programs into offensive biological weapons, which are arguably more difficult to control than their chemical and nuclear counterparts. Andy Oppenheimer investigates.

In January 2024, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock was moved to the closest point to midnight in its 79-year history: 90 seconds. The growing threat of nuclear weapons and climate change were the main reasons for moving the second hand further. However, a less known reason was prompted by worldwide biological threats such as COVID-19, and equally, the dangers posed by the application of artificial intelligence to biological research, resulting in synthetic biological weapons (BW), and hence lethal and uncurable outbreaks of disease. 

BW are made from living organisms, fashioned into a weaponized agent with a delivery mechanism. They date back many centuries. For example, Ancient Greek forces used venom-tipped arrows, put dead animals into wells to poison the water of their enemies, and fired scorpion hives at them.

BW may also include toxins made by the pathogen. Besides their military applications, weaponized viruses, bacteria, fungi, or prions can be deployed to assassinate political opponents, infect livestock and food chains, cause widespread environmental and economic disaster, and create fear of infection among populations across nations and continents. 

Russia’s BW Program

According to the U.S. State Department, Russia has continued to pursue an offensive BW program in violation of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), which it signed in 1972. It is reported to have modernized remaining elements of the Soviet program at several locations in Russia. 

Furthermore, evidence has emerged that the regime is set on developing a new generation of genetically modified bioweapons. In the 1970s, this effort began with the biotechnology organization Biopreparat, whose research on genetic engineering for BW employed an estimated 65,000 workers at dozens of military and civilian facilities by the 1980s.

Aerial view of the Soviet Sverdlovsk BW facility, from where a release of weaponized Bacillus anthracis spores killed 64 people, © University of California, Los Angeles

Much of this effort remained covert, apart from the accidental release of weaponized Bacillus anthracis spores from the Sverdlovsk-19 facility in April 1979, leading to 64 fatalities. Soviet officials attributed it to consumption of contaminated meat until 1992 when President Boris Yeltsin admitted that the outbreak resulted from military activity at the facility.

Russia’s use of chemical weapons (CW) to assassinate opponents and its support of the Syrian regime’s repeated sarin and chlorine bombardments on its own people add weight to growing fears that Russian CW or BW could be used in Ukraine. 

However, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists suggests that obstacles to these aims are Russia’s loss of scientific expertise since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, as well as bad management and corruption. The U.S. administration imposed sanctions on several Russian military-biological facilities in 2021, and, moreover, if BW were used by Russia in its war against Ukraine, their likely spread over NATO borders could trigger Article 5 and a full NATO response.

Claims of Ukrainian BW

One year into its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Moscow claimed that the U.S. was funding “military biological activities”, that is, secretly developing BW in Ukrainian laboratories. Moscow claimed its invading forces discovered evidence of an “emergency clean-up,” and that documents had been found by Russian troops regarding covert U.S. operations in labs in Kharkiv and Poltava.

In 1954, the Soviet Union constructed the Aralsk-7 BW test siteon Vozrozhdeniya (formerly Renaissance) Island, © Wikimedia Commons

This kind of Russian BW disinformation and propaganda began in 2009 and was used by President Putin as one of many false and often contradictory pretexts for invading Ukraine. In reply, the U.S. and Ukraine categorically denied that Ukraine was developing them. However, U.S. Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland has stated that the U.S. funded Ukrainian biolabs following the fall of the Soviet Union to aid technology transfer from weapons to public health as part of the Cooperative Threat Reduction program. This involved, according to Gronvall, surveillance of diseases as an early-warning system for illnesses endemic in the region, such as African swine fever. 

The U.S.-led Biological Threat Reduction Program established in 1997 was also involved in working with Russia in its laboratories as part of the then G8-led Global Partnership against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction to reduce biological threats from Russia. This partnership was established in 2002.

As is the case with most biolabs that carry out research on dangerous diseases, the Ukrainian labs are said to hold dangerous pathogens, including potential BWAs. In Ukraine’s case, a serious risk of outbreak could result from Russian takeover of the labs. The West also fears that Russia might conduct an attack with its own BW and other WMD.


A United States Department of Defense (DoD) Posture Review published in August 2023 highlighted the growing BW threat posed by China, as well as Russia and North Korea. These are all cited as maintaining active offensive BW programs. The Review cites “advances in both synthetic biology and peptide synthesis” that could “enable states to develop a wide range of novel toxins with both incapacitating and lethal effects”. 

From 2010, the Chinese – who signed the BWC in 1984 – have increased research into dangerous pathogens at a growing number of high-level biosafety labs, with genetic engineering at the forefront. Biological research has received special funds as part of China’s “military-civil fusion”, a national program to integrate civilian technology and research into the People’s Liberation Army. 

A heated debate has continued about whether COVID-19 was a Chinese bioweapon – or at least the result of poor laboratory security that facilitated an accidental release of SARS-CoV-2 from the Wuhan facility. This controversy has illustrated one of the central difficulties of attribution of BW: the identification of the origin of dangerous pathogens, even when used in civilian research and not intended for warfare.

North Korea

In the 1960s, North Korea began a BW research program centered on its National Defense Science Institute. This led to the pariah state’s acquisition of anthrax, cholera, and bubonic plague.

According to a 2017 analysis by IHS Jane’s, the South Korean Ministry of Defense issued a report in June 2015 stating that North Korea “possesses an assortment of biological agents – including anthrax and smallpox, which was eradicated worldwide in 1979 – and the ability to weaponize them within 10 days”. North Korea, at that time, did not yet possess warheads to employ bioweapons. Nevertheless, despite the considerable advancement of its strategic weaponry, its nuclear and chemical advances somewhat overshadow BW.

North Korean soldiers wearing gas masks train for chemical warfare, © KCTV

Controlling BW

The BWC was established in 1972 to prohibit the development and use of BW and came into force in 1975. As of February 2023, 185 states were party to the treaty, four additional states have signed but not ratified it, and a further eight have neither signed nor acceded to it.

Among the unholy trinity of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, BW are arguably the most difficult to control. They are also often lumped in with chemical weapons as though they were the same. 

There have been several violations of the BWC, not least because the Treaty provisions are very difficult to verify. This hangs greatly on the dual-use nature of biological and medical research facilities. In order to develop new drugs and vaccines to treat serious infectious diseases, the causative pathogens must be produced. The problem of attribution is also typically illustrated when a novel virus infects a community and beyond, as proving whether its origin is adversarial or natural can take years.

Synthetic Biology Research at NASA Ames Research Center, Silicon Valley, Calif. 
©Alexander van Dijk/Wikimedia Commons


The 2023 DoD Posture Review called for the U.S. to step up efforts on intelligence, biosurveillance, and early-warning systems, recommending a more unified approach to coordinating biodefense responsibilities and warning against “shortfalls in readiness and preparedness”.

The Doomsday Clock 2024 statement also reflected concerns that artificial intelligence will allow states and non-state actors to create even more harmful and transmissible biological weapons agents. It highlighted the proliferation of high-biosafety-level laboratories along with high-risk research ostensibly motivated by interests in controlling these diseases. 

Despite the importance of understanding and countering naturally occurring biological threats – which in human history remain the biggest cause of pandemics and plague – questions persist about whether the growing number of high-biosafety-level laboratories are worth the risk for achieving disease and toxin prevention and cure. With the pressing need to standardize and improve safety and security in such labs, the danger of accidental release of dangerous pathogens can only increase. 

Andy Oppenheimer is the author of IRA: The Bombs and the Bullets – A History of Deadly Ingenuity (2008) and a former editor of CBNW and Jane’s NBC Defense. He is a Member of the International Association of Bomb Technicians & Investigators and an Associate Member of the Institute of Explosives Engineers, and has written and lectured extensively on CBRNe since 2002.

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