Botulinum Toxins are produced by the bacteria Clostridium botulinum under anaerobic conditions. The bacteria colonize in the gastrointestinal tract. Clostridium botulinum is divided into seven strains (A-G) based on weight. Botulinum toxins are some of the most lethal known toxins. The toxin blocks the nerve's ability to release acetylcholine, the component that relays signals from the nervous system to muscles. The result is paralysis. One gram of crystalline toxin, when properly disseminated, could kill 1 million people. As a liquid solution, botulinum is colorless, odorless, and tasteless. It is inactivated by heat. Unlike Clostridium tetani (tetanus), botulinum poisoning is rare in nature and the general population is not vaccinated against it. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) labels botulinum toxin as a Category A biological weapons agent.
History of Botulinum toxins
During the 19th century, it was believed that botulinum toxins developed from eating rotten sausages; the term "botulism" or the Latin botulus means "black sausage." Clostridium botulinum was first isolated by Belgian microbiologist Emile P Van Ermengen in 1897. Musicians in a brass band developed double vision and muscle paralysis after sharing a meal of pickled ham. Ermengen found the bacteria in both the pickled ham and post-mortem victims.
Botulinum toxins were first used as a treatment for strabismus, the lack of coordination of the eyes, by ophthalmologist Dr. Alan Scott. In 1989, this treatment was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for strabismus, blepharospasm, and hemifacial spasms. Medical studies have also shown that botulinum toxins A and B effectively treat migraines, excessive sweating, and muscle pains as well. The toxin is also a popular agent for its cosmetic uses.
Botulinum toxins as a Biological Weapon
Botulinum toxins have been developed into biological weapons agents for its extreme potency and lethality. In 1939, Sir Frederick Banting included botulinum toxins in the Canadian biological weapons arsenal. The agent was known as Agent X to the allies. It proved unstable and difficult to mass produce. 7 pounds of the biological agent was produced, but US field tests at Horn Island proved the agent to be a failure.
During World War II, the US feared that Germany had developed botulinum for battlefield use. Intelligence information indicated that the Germans were attempting to develop botulinum toxin as a cross-channel weapon to be used against invasion forces. The US manufactured more than 1 million doses of the botulinum vaccine for troop preparing for the D-Day landings. In the spring of 1942, there was speculation that the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in Prague by Czech Patriots may have involved a bomb laced with botulinum toxins. The United States eliminated its stockpile of botulinum toxins when it destroyed its biological weapons program between May 1971 and May 1972.
The Japanese biological weapons program, Unit 731, fed Clostridium botulinum cultures to prisoners of war at their facilities in Manchuria, China, to observe the lethal effect of the toxin. The South African biological weapons project, Project Coast (1981-1994), developed botulinum toxins as a possible biological agent under the direction of Colonel Wouter Basson. Although Project Coast was terminated, speculations arose that members of Project Coast may have sold biological weapons expertise and technology to rogue states such as Libya.
The Soviet Union experimented extensively with Clostridium botulinum, and it was one of several agents tested at the Aralsk-7 facilities situated on the Aral Sea on Vozrozhdeniye Island. Reports suggested that the Soviet biological weapons program, Biopreparat, attempted to splice the botulinum toxin gene into other bacteria. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was reported that four countries the US labels as 'state sponsors of terror,' North Korea, Iraq, Iran, and Syria, developed botulinum toxins as possible biological weapons agents.
In August 1991, Iraq informed the United Nations Special Commission Team 7 of its research, development, and field testing of botulinum toxins as a weapon. Following this voluntary admission, the 1995 defection and debriefing of a key Iraqi official provided western intelligence experts with evidence of 100 R400 bombs and 13 Al Hussein SCUDS that were loaded with 19,000 liters of concentrated botulinum toxins. They were deployed in January 1991 in four different locations.
In the 1990s, the Aum Shinrikyo cult in Japan attempted three times to use aerosolized botulinum toxins as a weapon of terror. They obtained the Clostridium botulinum bacteria from soil samples from northern Japan. In 1995, authorities arrested a man suspected of possessing botulinum toxins as he crossed the US-Canadian border. The man also possessed quantities of ricin, weapons, 20,000 rounds of ammunition, and $89,000. As he awaited trial, he hung himself in jail.
Despite skepticism that botulinum poison could be concentrated, stabilized, and aerosolized to make an effective military weapon against a specific enemy target, a botulinum attack against civilian targets may prove disturbingly effective. An aerosol release of botulinum toxins from a single point can kill or incapacitate 10% to 0.5 miles downwind of the release.
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