6 Deadly Bioweapons the US Army Has Fought Since 1969

(U.S. Army National Guard/Staff Sgt. Brian A. Barbour)

Few things are more frightening as a weapon than infectious diseases. The idea of a creeping, invisible death that will probably make you bleed from places you'd rather not is much worse than the idea of getting shot.

In this veteran's opinion, anyway.

In any case, it's a good thing the U.S. Army has its Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases to counteract the development or weaponization of superbugs and viruses for use against the United States.

Since the 1960s, USAMRIID has been on the front lines of disease research and testing in order to keep the communists, terrorists, Mother Nature or anyone else from using biological weapons against America and its allies.

It's one of the only places in America that can handle Biosafety Level 4 viruses, the highest levels of safety containment for some of the world's deadliest diseases and toxins.

Here are just a few of the menaces USAMRIID is helping to nip in the bud before they get out of hand -- or into the wrong hands.

1. Q-Fever

In the 1950s, the precursor to USAMRIID, the Army Medical Unit, conducted tests on human volunteers to determine the cause of Q-Fever, an aggressive pneumonia first seen in Australian slaughterhouses. It was believed the agent could be used as a biological weapon. Long story short, they were right. Only instead of fighting it, they weaponized it.

The United States created more than 5,000 gallons of Q-Fever because it was easily disbursed, could survive up to 60 days on some surfaces, and requires only one bacilli to infect someone. The cache was destroyed after the U.S. signed the U.N. Biological Weapons Convention of 1972.

2. Botulism

During the first Gulf War, Saddam Hussein's Iraq was known to have produced more than 19,000 gallons of botulinum toxin. The threat against American troops in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm was very real. It was up to USAMRIID to protect allied forces in case Saddam used the weapon against coalition troops. Iraq had an estimated 100 R-400 bombs loaded with the toxin.

Botulism is naturally rare, but in a botulism weapon, it can be extremely lethal, causing paralysis, death and long-term hospital care for those who survive. Just one gram of botulinum toxin is enough to kill a million people when inhaled.

3. Hantavirus

When the U.S. Army saw 3,000 troops in the Korean War suddenly come down with an extremely virulent haemorrhagic fever, officials assumed it was a biological weapon. No evidence of a weapon was ever found, but they discovered a family of diseases called "Bunyaviridae."

Hantavirus is the common name for Hantavirus Hemorrhagic Fever with Renal Syndrome, a condition with a 50% mortality rate. Though no vaccine exists, the researchers at USAMRIID recently identified a key receptor that could lead to a treatment.

4. Anthrax

Anthrax is probably No. 1 on the list of most likely biological agents because it's naturally found in soil, is easily produced and lasts for a long, long time once disbursed. It's odorless, colorless and tasteless, meaning it's bad news as a sneaky weapon of mass destruction.

USAMRIID's work against anthrax includes an effective, FDA-approved field test for identifying anthrax as well as an advanced vaccine that could protect people from inhalation anthrax, the deadliest form of the disease and the one most likely to be used as a biological agent.

5. Marburg Hemorrhagic Fever

Marburg virus is in the same family as the Ebola virus. It's important to note that the Marburg virus is a Class-A bioweapon agent, meaning it can be isolated from African fruit bats and turned into a weapon. The Soviet Union weaponized Marburg virus in an aerosol form and noted its mortality rate could be as high as 90 percent.

In 2014, USAMRIID, the CDC and other pharmacological labs developed a drug that protected primates and guinea pigs from Marburg, preventing it from spreading inside its host.

6. Ebola Virus

With a mortality rate as high as 67% and its origin in the same virus family as Marburg, Ebola was an ideal virus to be weaponized by the Soviet Union, which was able to isolate Ebola in much the same way as Marburg Hemorrhagic Fever. Luckily, the Soviets never used it.

During the recent Ebola outbreaks in West Africa that saw an incredible number of infections between 2014 and 2016, Army researchers helped develop four different multi-drug therapies to combat the virus and contain its spread. As of 2019, two of those are still under development -- and USAMRIID is one of very few labs in the U.S. capable of handling Ebola research.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com.

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