Faltering across this phrase the first thought that occurred was that it could be about the nocturnal Prosimii
or perhaps marine life in caves, however the term is much more insidious than that.
''All I knew was that the dream of total Eradication had failed. . . .
We could eradicate smallpox from nature, but we could not uproot the virus from the human heart.''
(Richard Preston, The Demon in the Freezer)
You didn’t think this would be about hanky panky in the labs with the lights out did you?
Dark biology is a phrase describing “Scientific research related to biological weapons.” A case in point of natural science fiction of the shadowy kind began in the 1994 television show The X-Files. The most prominent chronicle connects a dreadful black oil disease to a viral apocalypse. With its disturbing doldrums of doomsday chic, The X-Files shines its flashlight-in-the-fog ambiguity upon the enemy within uncovering a government/alien conspiracy to eradicate all life that wends its way throughout entire series.
From poisoned arrows to poisoned wells intentional use of bio-warfare has been around for centuries. In 190 B.C the great leader of the Cathagian Army Hannibal had earthen jars filled with venomous snakes hurled onto enemy ships. Later, during 14th Century, the Tartar army besieged the city of Kaffa by catapulting the bodies of victims from the bubonic plague over the walls in an attempt to initiate an epidemic upon the residents. The consequence of this act was the prologue to the plagues introduction into Europe. It was devastating. Without enough people to farm, properties lost financial power that provided an opportunity for monarchs to centralize power. Teachers and tutors in universities died and, with them, learning. Thus began the Dark Ages.
In late spring 1763 there was an outbreak in the garrison of Fort Pitt and here begins the first recorded "weaponized" biological agent in North America.
Blankets from the sick were as a rule burned to prevent the spread of infection instead Sir Jeffrey Amherst delivered them as biological bombs as a part of a plan to "reduce," as he so clinically put it, the size of the Native American tribes that were hostile to the crown during the French and Indian Wars. The pathogen was smallpox.
Covert operations by the Germans in Romania during World War I called for the infection of sheep destined for Russia with anthrax. The first attempt to limit the use of biologicals in warfare was between the World War I and World War II with the 1925 Geneva Protocol. Not surprisingly countries that ratified the protocol stipulated the right for retaliation rather than any prohibition for the utilization of bio-weapons, it didn’t seek to prevent the research, production, or possession either; nor were there any provisions for inspections.
The most wide-ranging and appalling biological weapons research and deployment occurred in Manchuria Japan from 1932 until the end of the war. Simply titled Unit 731, documents during subsequent trials revealed that there were experiments performed on prisoners using a form of, Shigella, Vibrio cholerae and Yersinia pestis. As many as 10, 000 prisoners died from "experimental infection" or were executed after experiments for autopsy. “Eleven Chinese cities were attacked with biological agents. These attacks ranged from water supply contamination to food contamination with cholera, anthrax, Salmonella and the plague. Cultures of these agents were sprayed from aircraft.” It wasn’t until the latter part of 1942 that the United States initiated an offensive program of germ warfare when intelligence agents of the Office of Strategic Services exposed the activities of Unit 731.
To test the efficiency of weaponized anthrax delivered by a conventional bomb, behind closed doors, the British developed their own biological warfare program focused on anthrax. Choosing the Gruinard Island off the coast of Scotland experimental bombing began in 1943 to determine the rate of dispersion. The end result was an outbreak of anthrax infection among the live stock of the resident ranchers.
As the Cold War between the United States and the USSR built up there was propaganda and an arms race nothing like the world had ever seen. The Soviet Union accused the United States of using germ warfare in Korea at the United Nations General Assembly. This allegation changed the focus of the United States program leading to secret and controversial experiments.
The American program elected to use so-called "Surrogate Biological Agents" that were ostensibly non- pathologic to humans. These surrogates were used to simulate the employment of more deadly organisms. In a highly classified program bacterium …were sprayed in US cities. The program was shut down in 1969.
In the San Francisco experiment with Serratia marcescens 5,000 particles per minute were sprayed from the coast inward. One man died and ten others were hospitalized by an infection that was never followed up. Declassified information indicates that during the test there was five to ten times the normal infection rate in San Francisco areas that were sprayed.
Meanwhile in Russia the first documented evidence for assassination with a biological weapon was recorded.
In an operation out of the pages of an Ian Fleming's James Bond spy novel, the KGB and the Bulgarian secret police executed a flawless and as yet unsolved murder. Yuri Andropov, the chairman of the Soviet KGB reportedly authorized technical assistance and training for the operation.
On September 7, 1978 Georgi Markov a Bulgarian writer and journalist who worked for the BBC and for Radio Free Europe left home for work at the BBC. It was his habit to take the Waterloo Bridge bus to the BBC headquarters. As Markov neared the queue of people waiting for the bus, he suddenly felt a stinging pain in the back of his right thigh. He turned and saw a heavyset man in his 40's stooping over to pick up a dropped umbrella. The man hailed a taxi and disappeared.
Unconcerned, Markov continued to work where he told his colleagues what happened. He showed one BBC friend a red pimple-like swelling on his thigh. That evening Markov developed a high fever and he was taken to a London hospital and treated for a non-specific type of blood poisoning. Three days later he was dead.
On autopsy a tiny pellet was found in the wound in Markov's thigh. This pellet had an empty X-shaped cavity with two 0.34 mm holes. Toxicology results determined that Markov had been murdered by a poison, ricin. The ricin was encapsulated in a waxy base designed to melt at body temperature thus releasing into the tissues the ricin toxin. Ricin is a toxin that is derived from a plant source, a biological agent.
In the 1980's the United Nations Secretary General sent out a team of specialists that overwhelmingly verified allegations of Iraqi use of chemical agents to induce over 2,200 casualties during the Iran-Iraq War. Unfortunately the United Nations has not been able to verify the reports.
Weaponization of these agents, or what has been come to be called dark biology in the face of prohibitions will persist. The defense will run a parallel course. Will they be used yet again? It is only a question of when. Novelist and author Richard Preston of fiction and non-fiction stories of science is credited with the original coining this phase during a radio interview in the fall of 1997:
One guy that I was talking to was — he refers to biological weapons as "product" and he says: "you know, the Russians have developed some wickedly good product at Obalensk (ph). Man, they've got a black death product that you wouldn't believe." He speaks admiringly of the Iraqi product. And this is simply science. It's simply dark biology. It's something that scientists can do and therefore they will do.
—"Politics of Biological War," Talk of the Nation (National Public Radio), November 24, 1997
In his non-fiction narrative, The Demon in the Freezer
” In my writing, I explore nature, science, and the human experience through the power of true story. I like to narrate the lives of little-known people who do extraordinary things. The Demon in the Freezer is the third of a trilogy of books that I call Dark Biology--the first was The Hot Zone and the second was The Cobra Event. In Demon, I'm dealing with smallpox and anthrax, this time in a true story. Some aspects of modern biology are frightening and dangerous. Biologists themselves have hardly wanted to confront the darker side of their field. At the same time, I am no believer in any sort of doomsday. I have faith that human beings can be stronger and more inventive than any virus. It's a challenge and an honor to find ways to explain science to readers who aren't scientists, and it's fulfilling when the effort works. Sometimes it takes the power of a true story to reveal the incredible world we live in.”
The Demon in the Freezer
is the third in Preston’s Dark Biology trilogy. Beginning with The Hot Zone
, a nonfiction, bestseller account of an Ebola
virus epidemic in a monkey quarantine facility in Virginia initiated a genre of true scientific horror. The Ebola outbreak failed to materialize because the disease was unable to cross the species barrier from monkey to human. Preston shifted to fiction in his follow up second part of the trilogy, The Cobra Event
, a suspense novel about a bio-terrorist letting loose a toxic virus in New York City. In the third installment, Preston goes back to nonfiction dealing with what experts debate as the most precarious known biological agents: the smallpox
virus. He explains the chemical properties of this pernicious contagion to the reader; how a single infected person can launch an epidemic; and what this horrendous disease can be like: ''flat hemorrhagic smallpox,'' the skin ''darkens until it can look charred, and it can slip off the body in sheets''
. Preston tells how smallpox was eradicated by an international vaccination campaign in the 1970's. Following the publication of this novel highlighting the menace of bio-warfare, not only did President Clinton ask Congress for almost three billion dollars to defend against bio-terrorism, studies in this subject area reached mainstream in areas of education with post graduate curricula offered at some American institutions of higher learning called "dark biology."
Even though the anthrax outbreak followingthe 9/11 attacks was restricted and the infection is not contagious, it still snowed under laboratories, as well as state and local health departments. There are reasons to believe that the Soviet Union grew staggering quantities of the small pox virus, purportedly in part to arm intercontinental missiles; and how others might now use the virus as a ''strategic weapon'' to cause enormous damage to a society without great effort or expense. Tara O’Toole a medical doctor and director of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies composed the following excerpt from her thesis entitled Institutional Issues in Biodefense:
Growing Power of Bioscience and its “Dark Side”
A fundamental reason biological weapons constitute such an important strategic threat has to do with their linkage to the trajectory of biological science in the 21century. The world is entering the age of Big Biology. The growing power to manipulate the viruses and bacteria that have plagued humankind through history can be applied toward both beneficent and evil ends. Nuclear physics is not the only science with a dark side.
Our understanding of the life sciences is advancing at an unprecedented pace, which is sure to bring fantastic opportunities for prevention and treatment of disease and progress in agricultural techniques. As a consequence of the platform built by the advances in engineering and computational sciences in the 20th century, biologists can now generate enormous amounts of information very quickly. Information about bioscience is widely disseminated across the globe and is used for many, many purposes. Propelled by international corporations with high profit margins, these advances are producing products for which there is an avid appetite.
But advances in bioscience and biotechnology may also increase the potential power and diversity of biological weapons. Every time we gain in understanding how virulence is achieved by a particular bacteria or virus or what causes antibiotic resistance, we are learning how we could make a better vaccine or a more effective treatment. That same knowledge, however, can be used to make a more virulent bug or an antibiotic-resistant germ. We are also developing techniques to potentially alter the way microorganisms behave, so that infections typically transmitted only through oral-fecal contact might be rendered contagious via respiratory contact, for example.
The dual-use capacity of biological research is very worrisome. While you can easily tell the difference between the technologies used to build a nuclear power plant and those required to create a nuclear weapon, the distinction between "good" biology and dark biology hinges on its application and intent to a degree that no other technology really has.
The Soviet biological weapons program, which Brezhnev began secretly in the 1970s right after the USSR signed the biological weapons convention, had made a lot of progress before the West realized in 1991 what was going on. And we realized what was happening only through high-level defectors. By the 1980s or so, the Soviets had not only made ton quantities of smallpox, anthrax, and plague, all in weaponized form, they were also experimenting with viral weapons. They were alleged to have been working on hybridizing the Marburg virus, which is an Ebola-like hemorrhagic fever virus. They were also working on antibiotic-resistant weapons. We know they created antibiotic-resistant plague. And they were beginning to explore the use of smaller molecules (such as peptides) as weapons to induce mood changes.
Since the end of the Cold War, much of the Biopreparat program has been dismantled. But we don't know what's happened to the 30,000 scientists who once worked in the Soviet bioweapons program; there is concern that some may have gone to Iran, Iraq, or North Korea. And we have no idea what happened to the black military programs. We don't know where the cultures or the culture recipes for the Soviet bioweapons stocks are, or whether they might have found their way into the hands of rogue states or terrorist groups.
There are tens of thousands of highly trained bioscientists all around the globe. This is very different from the situation that pertained in 1945,when most of the 100 scientists who knew anything about nuclear fission were all behind barbed wire on a mesa in Los Alamos.
"Biological weapons are capable of taking the country past the point of no-recovery," further warns Dr. O’Toole. Another periodical cites the John Hopkins’s director in an article published in early 2002, “The growing power of biological science has been largely overlooked and little understood by government officials,” says O’Toole. “Unlike nuclear physics, where it is relatively easy to gauge the intent of research programs, the only way you can tell the difference between good biology and dark biology is in the application," she said. “And by then, it is potentially too late.”
History of Biological Warfare:
INSTITUTIONAL ISSUES IN BIODEFENSE:
McIntire Peters, Katherine, "Nation highly exposed to future terrorist attacks, experts warn," Government Executive Magazine, 22 Jan. 2002
The Word Spy: