Timeline of biorisk

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This is a timeline of biorisk, which refers to the risk associated with biological agents, such as bacteria, viruses, toxins, and other microorganisms, that have the potential to cause harm to human health, animal health, or the environment. It encompasses the potential for the accidental or intentional release of these agents, which can lead to infectious disease outbreaks, epidemics, or other adverse consequences.

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Time period Development summary More details
Ancient history " Biological warfare dates back more than two thousand years. In the Trojan War, archers dipped their arrows into poison. Roman commanders poisoned the wells of besieged towns. Mongol attackers catapulted the bodies of plague victims over castle walls."[1]
14th century "Spread by rat-borne fleas, the black death killed three-quarters of Florence’s population, and more than half the population of Europe. In just five years, from 1346 to 1351, Europe’s population fell from eighty to thirty million people."[1]
16th century "An even higher death rate was visited on Native Americans after the arrival of Columbus in 1492. In the century after Europeans arrival in the Americas, measles, smallpox, cholera, influenza, and other diseases killed at least four-fifths of Native Americans.4 In some cases, entire communities were wiped out by the “Columbian Exchange.”"[1]
18th century "At the end of that century, English settlers arrived in Australia, bringing the same cocktail of diseases with which Europeans had infected Native Americans, and reduced the Indigenous population on that continent by at least four-fifths as well."[1]
20th century " During the 1950s and 1960s, the United States carried out an active bioweapons program, investigating yellow fever, typhus, and the plague."[2] In the 1970s and 1980s, while having signed the Biological Weapons Convention, the Soviet Union continue to secretly develop biological weapons.[1] During the 1980s, Saddam Hussein manages to produce over a hundred million gallons of biological weapons.[1]

Full timeline

Year Category Event type Details Country/location
6th century BC The Assyrians employ a strategy of poisoning enemy wells using a substance called rye ergot, marking the first known use of a biological toxin.[3]:p14
1340 AD Attackers hurl dead horses and other animals by catapult at the castle of Thun-l'Évêque in Hainault (northern France). The castle defenders are forced to negotiate a truce because the stench from the rotting carcasses was so unbearable. The defenders report that "the stink and the air were so abominable ... they could not long endure."[3]:7
1422 Attacking forces besiege Karlstein Castle in Bohemia. They launch decaying cadavers of men killed in battle over the castle walls, and stockpile animal manure in the hope of spreading illness. However, the defenders hold fast, and the siege is abandoned after five months. There is some evidence that Russian troops would employ the same tactic using the corpses of plague victims against the Swedes in 1710. However, this is disputed, and there is no clear consensus on whether or not this actually happened.[3]:8
1495 During the Italian Wars, the Spanish army attempts to use biological warfare against the French army. They contaminate French wine with the blood of lepers, hoping to spread the disease.[3]:8
1763 British soldiers distribute blankets infected with the smallpox virus to American Indians, which is a notable and documented instance of using a virus as a biological weapon against combatants.[3]:p14 United States (Thirteen Colonies)
1909–1918 Henri Girard, while studying bacteriology, employs S. typhi and toxic mushrooms to commit murder and claim death benefits from the insurance policies he sells to his victims. He becomes successful in killing two individuals, but six others survive after being infected or poisoned by him.[4]:21
1910 Patrick O'Brien de Lacy and Vladimir Pantchenko, a physician, are found guilty of murdering Captain Vassilli Buturlin, who is de Lacy's brother-in-law, in St. Petersburg, Russia. The murder is carried out by injecting diphtheria toxin into Captain Buturlin.[4]:21
1913 Karl Hopf, with his knowledge of handling drugs, deliberately infects his third wife with Vibrio cholerae and typhus bacteria. Additionally, he uses arsenic to murder his father, two children, and first wife. He is also accused of attempting to poison his second and third wives, as well as his mother. Hopf would face conviction in a German court for these crimes.[4]:21
1915 German-American medical doctor Anton Dilger produces the anthrax and glanders bacterium with the intention of infecting horses that were meant for the warfront. This incident is a notable and documented example of using bacteria as a biological weapon against animals.[3]:p14 United States
1915–1918 During the early stages of World War I, while the United States is still neutral, the German Secret Service undertakes a covert biological warfare campaign in the United States. They deliberately infect horses and mules, which the Allies previously purchased in the United States for use in Europe, with B. mallei (glanders) and B. anthracis (anthrax). Similarly, in Romania, they infect sheep destined for Russia with glanders and anthrax. In Argentina, they infect sheep, cattle, and horses bound for Britain and the Indian army with glanders and anthrax. Allegedly, they also use B. mallei and V. cholerae against allied forces during the German retreat.[4]:21
1916 Murder of Hannah and John E. Peck. Arthur Warren Waite, a dentist, makes determined efforts to obtain harmful pathogens. He causes the death of his mother-in-law by adding pathogenic microorganisms to her food. His attempt to use pathogens to kill his father-in-law fails, so he resorts to poisoning him with arsenic instead.[4]:21 United States
1918 The Spanish flu affects approximately one-third of the global population and results in the deaths of approximately one in fifty people.[1] Worldwide
1925 (June 17) The Geneva Protocol is created, with the purpose to prohibit the use of chemical and bacteriological methods of warfare. This protocol marks the first international endeavor to restrict the utilization of biological agents in warfare.[3]:p14
1932 The Japanese army hands over control of three biological research centers, including one located in Manchuria, to General Shirō Ishii. This event marks the beginning of General Ishii's involvement and leadership in the development of bioweapons. General Ishii would be widely regarded as one of the most infamous figures in the history of bioweapons due to his involvement in human experimentation and war crimes during World War II.[3]:p14 In the same year, dutring a visit, the Lytton Commission, which was set by the General Assembly of the League of Nations set up to examine Japan's occupation of Manchuria, is provided by the Japanese with fruit that contains V. cholerae. However, no one falls ill from consuming it.[4]:21 Japan (Empire of Japan)
1933 Dr. Taranath Bhatacharyna, a physician skilled in bacteriology, and Benoyendra Chandra Pandey jointly kill Amarendra Pandey, who is Benoyendra's half-brother. The motive behind the murder is a dispute over the division of their father's estate. They administer a deadly amount of Y. pestis to carry out the crime.[4]:21 India
1934 Great Britain initiates efforts to establish its own biological weapons research project. This marks the beginning of the country's involvement in developing biological weapons. Alongside its allies, Great Britain embarks on the development of a program focused on biological warfare research.[3]:p14 United Kingdom
1936 Dr. Tei-Sabro Takahashi, a notable Japanese physician, gains infamy for deliberately infecting 17 individuals, three of whom tragically lost their lives, by employing food contaminated with S. typhi. These incidents revolve around conflicts among rival physicians, their families, and his own wife. Dr. Takahashi's actions would raise serious ethical and legal concerns, and the case remains a significant chapter in the history of medical malpractice and criminal intent.[4]:21 Japan
1939 Dr. Kikuko Hirose, a prominent Japanese physician, gains notoriety for distributing pastries contaminated with S. typhi and S. paratyphi to her former husband, who subsequently share them with several individuals. Twelve people fall ill, and one of them succumb to the infection. This incident would raise significant concerns regarding medical ethics and professional conduct, leaving a lasting impact on the medical community and serving as a cautionary tale in the realm of public health and safety.[4]:21 Japan
1942 (July 15) Anthrax is tested on Gruinard Island against sheep. Allies’ first field test of bioweapon.[3]:p14
1942 (November) The British government, concerned about the possibility that Germany is developing biological weapons, approaches the United States about leading a joint program to develop biological weapons. The US government is initially reluctant, but they eventually agreed to the British request. President Roosevelt approves the program in November 1942. The program is initially called the War Research Service, but it is later renamed the Chemical and Biological Warfare Service. Responsible for developing and testing biological weapons, the US bioweapons program would be terminated in 1969.[5][3]:p14
1943 (Spring) The US bioweapons program begins its activities at Camp Detrick, Maryland. This marks the implementation of plans to begin the US bioweapons program. Camp Detrick is a military base that has been used for biological research since the early 1900s. In the 1940s, the base would be expanded and converted into a major center for the development and testing of biological weapons.[3]:p14[3]:10
1949 (May) The United States Army Chemical Corps set up a Special Operations Division at Camp Detrick. The goal of this division is to perform field tests with bioweapons formulations. The first test conducted by the division is at the Pentagon in August 1949. Operatives from the division would infiltrate the Pentagon and spray bacteria into the air handling system. The bacteria is supposed to be harmless, but the test shows that it was possible to use biological weapons to spread disease in a large, enclosed space.[3]:p14
1950 The United States Navy conducts a series of tests to determine the feasibility of large-scale deployment of a bioweapon from the sea. These tests involve spraying cities in Norfolk, Hampton, Newport News, and San Francisco with harmless bacteria. The tests show that it is possible to spread biological weapons over a wide area from ships at sea..[3]:p14
1952 The Mau Mau, a militant anti-colonial movement in what is now Kenya, employs the toxic substance derived from the African milk bush (Synadenium grantii) to eliminate livestock. This strategic use of the plant toxin serves as a method of resistance against colonial forces and aims to disrupt agricultural activities and the livelihood of the colonial settlers. The Mau Mau's utilization of the plant's deadly properties would become a significant aspect of their resistance tactics and remains a notable historical episode in the struggle for independence and sovereignty in the region.[4]:21 Kenya
1953 The St. Jo Program conducts staged mock anthrax attacks in cities such as St. Louis, Minneapolis, and Winnipeg. This involves the use of aerosol generators positioned on top of cars to simulate the dispersal of anthrax. The results of these tests demonstrate the feasibility of deploying a bioweapon on a large scale from the land, raising concerns about the potential implications of such technology and highlighting the importance of biorisk management and preparedness measures.[3]:p14 United States
1955 Operation Whitecoat is initiated, involving human research volunteers who willingly participate in experiments to investigate the effects of biological agents on human subjects. The operation would continue for the subsequent 18 years, encompassing around 2200 individuals as part of the study. This program raises ethical considerations and highlights the importance of informed consent and the responsible conduct of research involving human participants.[3]:p14 United States
1957 Operation Large Area Concept is launched to assess the release of aerosols from airplanes. The first experiment involves a region spanning from South Dakota to Minnesota, and subsequent tests extend to areas between Ohio and Texas and from Michigan to Kansas. The results of these experiments demonstrate the feasibility of large-scale deployment of a bioweapon from the air, as some test particles are found to travel distances of up to 1200 miles. This raises serious concerns about the potential implications of aerial bioweapon deployment and underscored the significance of biorisk management and international security measures.[3]:p15 United States
1964 Dr. Mitsuru Suzuki, a Japanese physician specialized in bacteriology, faces legal repercussions when he is apprehended for infecting four of his colleagues by using a sponge cake that has been deliberately contaminated with dysentery-causing pathogens. Following further investigation, he is found to be associated with a series of outbreaks involving typhoid fever and dysentery, which affected around 200 individuals and led to four fatalities. The prosecution alleges that Dr. Suzuki carried out these actions as part of his dissertation research, which involves the study of S. typhi obtained from numerous sources. Notably, one culture of S. typhi was illicitly acquired from Japan's NIH (National Institute of Health), while another culture was isolated from an infected patient. The case raises concerns about academic integrity and the potential misuse of dangerous pathogens for research purposes.[4]:22
1965 Government agents discreetly spray non-harmful bacteria onto passengers at what is presently known as Reagan National Airport.[1] United States
1969 (November 25) U.S. President Richard Nixon makes a significant announcement, declaring that the United States would renounce the use of all forms of deadly biological weapons that have the capability to kill or incapacitate. This announcement marks the end of an era in the United States' offensive biological weapons research, production, and storage. The decision reflects a significant shift in national policy towards biorisk management and demonstrated the country's commitment to international efforts to prevent the development and use of bioweapons.[3]:p15 United States
1970 Ascariasis poisoning incident occurs when Eric Kranz, a postgraduate student specializing in parasitology at MacDonald College, conducts a concerning act where he deliberately infects four of his roommates using food intentionally contaminated with a substantial number of embryonated ova of Ascaris suum. Ascaris suum is a parasitic roundworm typically found in pigs. Following this exposure, the infects individuals display symptoms and clinical indicators indicative of lower respiratory tract disease. The severity of illness is particularly pronounced in some cases, with affected individuals experiencing acute respiratory failure. This incident raises significant public health and ethical concerns surrounding the deliberate transmission of parasitic infections in a residential setting.[4]:22 United States
1972 (April 10) The Biological Weapons Convention is finalized and made available for countries to sign. This treaty unequivocally prohibits the development, production, and stockpiling of biological weapons. A total of seventy-nine nations, including the Soviet Union, sign the treaty, symbolizing a significant global commitment to biorisk management and the renunciation of bioweapons as tools of warfare. The Biological Weapons Convention stands as a landmark agreement in the pursuit of international security and the prevention of bioterrorism.[3]:p15
1975 (March 26) The Biological Weapons Convention officially comes into force, signifying a landmark moment in the global effort to ban biological weapons. Additionally, on the same day, the US Senate finally ratifies the 1925 Geneva Protocol, further bolstering the political will to prohibit the use of biological weapons internationally. These developments demonstrate a strong commitment from the international community to uphold biorisk management.[3]:p16
1975 The Symbionese Liberation Army, a radical left-wing group, was found with manuals on how to make biological weapons.[3]:p15
1977 Arnfinn Nesset, the proprietor of a nursing home for the elderly in Norway, faces a notorious criminal case involving the conviction of murdering 22 of his patients. Nesset employed a sinister method, injecting them with curacit, a substance derived from curare. This toxic compound is known for its paralyzing effects on the nervous system and was used by Nesset to carry out his heinous acts of intentional harm. The trial and conviction of Nesset draws considerable attention, raising serious concerns about the safety and vulnerability of elderly residents in care facilities.[4]:22
1978 An instance of using injection as a method to deliver biological agents is documented. Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian dissident, becomes the victim of this method when he receives a lethal dose of ricin, a potent toxin, administered through the tip of an umbrella. This event serves as a primary example of how a syringe or mechanical device can be utilized to covertly deliver harmful substances to individuals, highlighting the potential dangers of such methods in biothreat scenarios.[3]:p15 Bulgaria
1979 Approximately 70 fatalities occur due to an unintentional discharge of anthrax spores in the Soviet city of Sverdlovsk. The United States entertains suspicions that the release of anthrax bacterial spores was an accidental event originating from a Soviet military biological facility.[3]:p15 Russia (Soviet Union)
1980 A safe house belonging to the Red Army Faction is reportedly found in Paris, and within it, a laboratory is discovered containing significant quantities of botulinum toxin. This discovery raises concerns about the potential use of biological agents as tools of terrorism and underscored the importance of biorisk management and counterterrorism measures to address such threats.[3]:p16 France
1981 The organization known as "Dark Harvest" orchestrates an incident involving the delivery of a package of soil to the Chemical Defense Establishment in Porton Down, England. Their intention is to symbolically return what they refer to as "seeds of death" to their place of origin. The group claims that this soil, approximately 300 pounds in total, was taken from Gruinard Island, where anthrax bomb tests had been conducted in 1941. According to their statement, microbiologists from two universities and local individuals are involved in collecting the soil. Subsequent analysis reveal the presence of Bacillus anthracis in the soil at an estimated quantity of 10 organisms per gram. This event brings attention to the historical context and potential biothreats associated with biological agents like anthrax.[4]:22
1984 In a significant act of bioterrorism, adherents of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh intentionally contaminate salad bars in a town in Oregon with Salmonella bacteria. This event stands as the most extensive case of bioterrorism recorded in the history of the United States. The contamination of the salad bars leads to over 750 cases of salmonellosis among the affected population. Subsequent investigations reveal that the Rajneeshees orchestrated this act in an attempt to influence the local county elections. To carry out their plan, members of the cult procured the Salmonella strain through mail from the American Type Culture Collection and cultivated the liquid cultures within the confines of their compound's medical clinic. This incident raised significant concerns about the potential misuse of biological agents for malicious purposes and highlighted the importance of biosecurity measures to safeguard public health and safety.[3][3]:p16 United States
1989 Vladimir Pasechnik, a defector from Biopreparat, exposed the presence of an ongoing offensive biological weapons program within the Soviet Union. His revelations provided evidence suggesting the Soviet Union's non-compliance with the Biological Weapons Convention, a treaty aimed at prohibiting the development and use of biological weapons.[3]:p15 Russia (Soviet Union)
1989 Members of the Patriots Council, an antigovernment extremist group in Minnesota, conspire to assassinate a US marshal using ricin. The group intends to enhance the potency of the homemade ricin by combining it with dimethylsulfoxide, a chemical that accelerates absorption, and subsequently applying it to the door handles of the marshal's car. Their plot is uncovered, leading to the apprehension of all four individuals involved. They become the first to face prosecution under the US Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act of 1989.[3]:p15 United States
1990 Graham Farlow, an inmate in a correctional facility situated in New South Wales, Australia, holds the status of an asymptomatic carrier of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). In an incident, Farlow intentionally administers HIV-contaminated blood through injection to a prison guard named Geoffrey Pearce, who contracts the HIV virus as a result. Subsequently, Farlow succumbs to Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS).[4]:24 Australia
1992 During a disagreement regarding child support, Brian T. Stewart, a phlebotomist at a hospital in St. Louis, Missouri, administers HIV-contaminated blood to his 11-month-old son. The incident causes harm to the child and results in legal ramifications for Mr. Stewart.[4]:24 United States
1993 (April) Aerosolized powders and respiratory droplets have been extensively discussed in real and fictional scenarios related to potential biological threats. In April 1993, the United States experienced the most significant infectious disease outbreak in its history, which was unintentionally caused by waterborne contamination. This outbreak of cryptosporidiosis occurred in the greater Milwaukee area and had a severe impact, with over 430,000 individuals suffering from gastroenteritis among a population of 1.6 million. The outbreak led to approximately 4,400 hospitalizations and tragically claimed the lives of around 100 people (MacKenzie et al., 1994). The incident highlighted the potential consequences of unintentional contamination and its profound effects on public health and wellbeing.[3]:p15
1993 Iwan E, a Dutch man, injects his former girlfriend, Gina O, with 2.5 ml of HIV-contaminated blood following their breakup.[4]:24
1994 Dr. Richard J. Schmidt, a married gastroenterologist practicing in Louisiana, is implicated in an incident wherein he administers HIV-contaminated blood to a former romantic partner. Subsequent laboratory tests would reveal that the individual contracted the same strain of HIV as detected in one of Dr. Schmidt's patients. This event draws considerable attention and scrutiny, leading to legal and ethical considerations within the medical community.[4]:24
1995 Dr. Debora Green, an oncologist, makes three unsuccessful attempts to cause harm to her estranged cardiologist husband, Dr. Michael Farrar, using ricin-laced food. Subsequently, she sets fire to her residence, leading to the tragic loss of two out of her three children. Dr. Green's case would garner attention due to her reported heavy drinking habits and apparent manifestations of a severe psychiatric disorder.[4]:24
1995 Aum Shinrikyo, a Japanese doomsday cult, gains notoriety for an act of chemical terrorism when its members release sarin gas into the Tokyo subway system. This event would raise global concerns about the potential use of chemical agents as tools of terror, and it would lead to heightened awareness of the importance of biorisk management and counterterrorism measures.[3]:p15 Japan
1996 Diane Thompson, an employee at St. Paul Medical Center hospital in Dallas, Texas, contaminates pastries with S. dysenteriae type 2 and places them in the laboratory break room. Twelve laboratory workers become sick after eating the contaminated food; another person becomes ill after consuming pastry brought home by one of the laboratory workers. Four of the people become sufficiently sick to require hospitalization. A year earlier, she infected her boy friend (John P. Richy) with same organism. Thompson falsified laboratory test results so that physicians would not learn of his infection. She infected him again after his release from the hospital, and a third time by injecting him with microorganisms while purporting to take a blood specime.[4]:24
1997 Unidentified farmers deliberately and in violation of regulations, introduce rabbit hemorrhagic disease, a calicivirus, into the South Island of New Zealand with the objective of using it as an animal control method to manage feral rabbit populations. The intentional introduction of this disease raises concerns regarding its potential impact on the local ecosystem and the welfare of wildlife in the region.[4]:25 New Zeland
2001 (June) Simulation The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security conducts the Dark Winter scenario, which simulates a deliberate bioterrorist attack in Oklahoma City, where residents are infected with smallpox. This simulated attack mirrors a real event that would happen shortly after when anthrax-laced envelopes are sent to media outlets and politicians' offices, resulting in the deaths of five individuals.[1]
2001 In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks, a series of letters containing spores of Bacillus anthracis (anthrax) are mailed to media companies and governmental officials. As a consequence, 22 cases of anthrax infection emerge, comprising 11 inhalational and 11 cutaneous infections. Five individuals afflicted with inhalational anthrax succumb to the disease. This bioterrorism incident raises significant concerns over public health and national security, leading to extensive investigations and measures to prevent and respond to such threats in an impartial manner.[4]:25 United States
2020 According to Abrahm Lustgarten's How Climate Change Is Contributing to Skyrocketing Rates of Infectious Disease, each year, five new diseases emerge.[1][6]

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  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 1.8 1.9 Leigh, Andrew (9 November 2021). What's the Worst That Could Happen?: Existential Risk and Extreme Politics. MIT Press. ISBN 978-0-262-36661-8. 
  2. Details of this program are drawn from US Army, U.S. Army Activity in the U.S. Biological Warfare Programs, vol. 2 (Washington, DC: US Army, 1977). See also Judith Miller, Stephen Engelberg, and William Broad, Germs: Biological Weapons and America’s Secret War (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001).
  3. 3.00 3.01 3.02 3.03 3.04 3.05 3.06 3.07 3.08 3.09 3.10 3.11 3.12 3.13 3.14 3.15 3.16 3.17 3.18 3.19 3.20 3.21 3.22 3.23 3.24 3.25 3.26 3.27 3.28 3.29 3.30 Ryan, Jeffrey; Glarum, Jan (30 August 2011). Biosecurity and Bioterrorism: Containing and Preventing Biological Threats. Butterworth-Heinemann. ISBN 978-0-08-056918-5.  Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Ryan" defined multiple times with different content
  4. 4.00 4.01 4.02 4.03 4.04 4.05 4.06 4.07 4.08 4.09 4.10 4.11 4.12 4.13 4.14 4.15 4.16 4.17 4.18 4.19 4.20 4.21 Anderson, Burt; Friedman, Herman; Bendinelli, Mauro (26 May 2007). Microorganisms and Bioterrorism. Springer Science & Business Media. ISBN 978-0-387-28159-9. 
  5. "Foreign Relations, 1969-1976, Volume E-2, Documents on Arms Control, 1969-1972". state.gov. Retrieved 21 June 2023. 
  6. Lustgarten, Abrahm. "How Climate Change Is Contributing to Skyrocketing Rates of Infectious Disease". ProPublica. Retrieved 29 October 2022.