Tracing Some Real Examples of Bio-Warfare: From The Arthashastra to Present World

Article by Shantanu K. Bansal

400 BC: Scythian archers infected their arrows by dipping them in decomposing bodies or in blood mixed with manure.

300-200 BC: Kautilya’s Arthashtra talks about use of poison as part of war tactics, as prevalent to all puranic wars described in the Hindu scriptures of Ancient India. It also talks about Visha Kanyas (Poison Girls), their blood and bodily fluids were purportedly poisonous to other humans.

1155: Emperor Barbarossa poisons water wells with human bodies, Tortona, Italy.

1346: Mongols catapult bodies of plague victims over the city walls of Caffa, Crimean Peninsula.

1495: Spanish mix wine with blood of leprosy patients to sell to their French foes, Naples, Italy.

1650: Polish fire saliva from rabid dogs towards their enemies

1675: First deal between German and French forces not to use ‘poison bullets’

1763: The first recoded “weaponized” biological agent in North America occurred during the French and Indian Wars (1754 to 1767). British distribute blankets from smallpox patients to native Americans. As a result annihilation of the race of Native American Indians.

1797: Napoleon floods the plains around Mantua, Italy, to enhance the spread of malaria

1863: Confederates sell clothing from yellow fever and smallpox patients to Union troops, USA

(Note: The timeline is sourced from the NCBI website with additional information by the author. It is not clear whether any of these attacks caused the spread of disease.)

During WW I

Biological warfare reached sophistication during the 1900s. In the First World War the Germans developed anthrax, glanders, cholera and a wheat fungus. French also involved in development of Bio-weapons.

Germany initiated a clandestine program to infect horses and cattle owned by Allied armies on both the Western and Eastern fronts. The infectious agent glanders was reported to have been used. For example, German agents infiltrated the United States and surreptitiously infected animals prior to their shipment across the Atlantic in support of Allied forces.

They also attempted to do the same with the horses of the French Cavalry. In addition, there reportedly was a German attempt in 1915 to spread plague in St. Petersburg in order to weaken Russian resistance.

Covert operations in Romania infected sheep destined for export to Russia with anthrax. The German Legation in Romania had laboratory vessels containing cultures confiscated. Subsequently, the Bucharest institute of Bacteriology and Pathology identified Bacillus anthracis (anthrax) and Bacillus mallei (Glanders, a respiratory tract infection of horses and mules). Meanwhile, German saboteurs in France infected horses and mules.

Even before the American entry in to the war, covert German bacteria warfare was attempted in the United States with the contamination of animal feed and infection of horses intended for export. Animals were the main target of these weapons because they carry bulk of the logistics operations those days.

To an extent, one of the Gruesome tactic that the Germans employed involved injecting deadly viruses into rats, who were then taken to the German trenches. Soldiers would launch thousands of pellets of rotten cheese into the allied trenches–often in the middle of the night–and then release hundreds of rats into the neutral zone between the two trenches. The rats, smelling the cheese, would rush at the unaware French, Russian, or British soldiers and bite anything that smelled of the putrid odor.

Post WW-1, the Geneva Protocol of 1925 was signed by 108 nations. This was the first multilateral agreement that extended prohibition of chemical agents to biological agents but with no verification of compliance.

Bio-Warfare Programmes During WW II

During WW II

Japanese embarked on a largescale programme to develop biological weapons during the Second World War. During World War II, Japanese forces operated a secret biological warfare research facility (Unit 731) in Manchuria that carried out human experiments on prisoners. Autopsies were also performed for greater understanding of the effects of the human body.

The Japanese, notably a “signatory of Geneva Convention”, experimented with the infectious agents for bubonic plagueanthraxtyphus, smallpox, yellow fevertularemiahepatitischolera, gas gangrene, and glanders, among others.

The Japanese allegedly experimented with the use of anthrax and other biological weapons in Manchuria, and some 10,000 deliberately infected prisoners are thought to have died as a result. The Japanese not only tested but also used biological weapons in China resulting in excessive loss of lives.

The first mass use of anthrax spores as a weapon is said to have taken place during the Japanese occupation of China from 1932 to 1945.

During the war, the Japanese army poisoned more than 1,000 water wells in Chinese villages to study cholera and typhus outbreaks. Japanese planes dropped plague-infested fleas over Chinese cities or distributed them by means of saboteurs in rice fields and along roads. Some of the epidemics they caused persisted for years and continued to kill more than 30,000 people in 1947, long after the Japanese had surrendered

In 1942, the United States formed the War Research Service which developed biological agents by June 1944 to counter the use by Germany. The British also made similar tests for a possible German offensive. Sufficient quantities of botulinum toxin and anthrax were stockpiled by June 1944 to allow unlimited retaliation if the German forces first used biological agents.

The British also tested anthrax bombs on Gruinard Island off the northwest coast of Scotland in 1942 and 1943 and then prepared and stockpiled anthrax-laced cattle cakes for the same reason.

During Cold War

In the Cold War era, which followed World War II, both the Soviet Union and the United States, as well as their respective allies, embarked on large-scale biological warfare R&D and weapons production programs.

The United States Secretary of State Alexander Haig accused the Soviet Union of supplying T-2 mycotoxin to the Communist states in VietnamLaos and Cambodiafor use in counterinsurgency warfare against the US resulting in death of thousands of people.

During the Vietnam War, Viet Cong guerrillas used needle-sharp punji sticks dipped in feces to cause severe infections after an enemy soldier had been stabbed. Biological warfare was used in Vietnam sporadically by the United States also from 1960 to 1968. The agent was to ensure limited spread of pneumonic plague.

In 1966 US may have for the first time conducted a bio-weapon resilience test when Bacillus subtilis was released into the subway system of the New York city to check resilience levels of the city from such attacks.

The Cold War is responsible for the first documented modern assassination using a biological agent. When it was found that on September 7, 1978 Georgi Markov a Bulgarian writer and journalist who worked for the BBC was murdered with Ricin, the untreatable toxin which can be weaponized as an aerosol, an attack probably made-up by the KGB.

In 1972, international concern led to a treaty banning the production and stockpiling of biological weapons. This was eventually signed by some 140 nations.

Although it was one of the treaty signatories, the Soviet Union continued researching and producing biological weapons – and in April 1979 an accidental release of anthrax spores from a military facility near Sverdlovsk caused 68 known deaths. Then 13 years later, President Boris Yeltsin admitted that the anthrax outbreak was the result of an unintentional release of anthrax.

Parallel Timeline

  • The Eastern European press stated that Great Britain had used biological weapons in Oman in 1957.
  • The Chinese alleged that the USA engineered a cholera epidemic in Hong Kong in 1961.
  • In July 1964, the Soviet newspaper Pravda asserted that the US Military Commission in Columbia and Colombian troops had used biological agents against peasants in Colombia and Bolivia.
  • In 1969, Egypt accused “imperialistic aggressors” of using biological weapons in the Middle East, specifically causing an epidemic of cholera in Iraq in 1966.
  • In the early 1980s, in the dark dawn of the AIDS epidemic as it emerged in the United States, many claimed that AIDS was the result of a U.S. bioweapons experiment at Fort Detrick in Maryland in which the deadly virus escaped from the lab and into the world.
Classification of Bio-weapons

Post Cold War

A classic case of Bio-terrorism, in 1994, a Japanese sect of the Aum Shinrikyo cult attempted an aerosolized (sprayed into the air) release of anthrax from the tops of buildings in Tokyo.

On September 18, 2001 and for a few days thereafter, several letters were received by US Congressmen and media outlets. These contained anthrax spores resulting in 22 people falling sick out of those five died.

In early 2010, more than eight years after the mailings, the Federal Bureau of Investigation finally closed its investigation, having concluded that the letters were mailed by a microbiologist who had worked in the U.S. Army’s biological defense effort for years and who committed suicide in 2008 after being named a suspect in the investigation.

On March 4, 2018, Russian spies smeared respiratory nerve agent (chemical weapon) Novichok on the doorknob of double agent Sergei Skripal’s home, contaminating him and his 33-year-old daughter, Yulia. Once he recovered, MI6 paid for plastic surgery to alter his appearance and gave him a new identity. Previously in 2006, the assassination of former KGB and then FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko —who defected to the UK—by Russians, who covertly put polonium in his food, caused a major diplomatic row between London and Moscow.

French virologist and medicine Nobel laureate Luc Montagnier created a scientific firestorm across the world post the global spread of Coronavirus, 2019-2020.

He claimed that SARS-Cov-2, the virus that led to the global pandemic is manmade as it’s the result of an attempt to manufacture a vaccine against the AIDS virus in Wuhan National Biosafety laboratory.

He jointly discovered the AIDS virus and bagged the 2008 Nobel award in medicine. He alleged that there was presence of elements of HIV and malaria in the genome of coronavirus. 

“Biowarfare in its many forms is not new. From poisoning well water to poisoning salad bars in restaurants, from poisoned arrows of 300 BC to poisoned punji stakes of 1960’s, from catapulting plague victims to dissemination of the plague by aircraft, warfare has included biological agents. The weaponization of these agents despite prohibitions will continue. The defense will run a parallel course…”

Thomas J. Johnson, Associate Professor of Respiratory Care and Health Sciences, AARC

Also Read at IADN: Unrestricted Warfare 2.0: Is India Ready? By Shantanu K. Bansal

End Notes

Thomas J. Johnson. A History of Biological Warfare from 300 B.C.E. to the Present [Online]. Available at:

Edmond Hooker. What Is the Biological Warfare? Agents Use [Online]. Available at:

Barry R. Schneider. Biological Weapons, Available at:

Friedrich Frischknecht. The history of biological warfare, Available at: 

NOTE: The IADN is not responsible for the authenticity of the facts provided in the article. The opinion expressed in this publication are those of the author.


  • Shantanu K. Bansal

    Founder of IADN. He has more than 10 years of experience in research and analysis. An award winning researcher, he writes for the leading defence and security journals, think-tanks and in-service publications. He is a senior consultant at the Indian Army Training Command (ARTRAC), Shimla. Contact him at:

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