A recent U.N. report on chemical weapons use in Syria has strengthened claims that the regime killed more than a thousand innocent Syrians, including hundreds of children, with the nerve agent sarin. Video images after the Aug. 21 attacks showed victims frothing at the mouth, convulsing, and suffering tortured deaths. But the effects of a chemical attack, horrible as they are, can be minuscule compared with a worst-case assault with a biological weapon.
Sarin, like similar nerve agents, degrades after release and poses little danger over an extended period. But bacteria, viruses, and other bioagents reproduce and could make an area more dangerous with the passage of time. A microorganism that causes contagious disease such as influenza or smallpox could infect individuals who further spread the disease, thus turning them into biological bombs. Such germ-caused outbreaks have occurred throughout human history.
A lethal strain of influenza killed more than 50 million people during the 1918-1919 "Spanish flu" pandemic. An estimated 300 million people died of smallpox in the 20th century. Although smallpox was deemed eradicated in 1980, the virus is still legally stored in a laboratory in the United States and at another one in Russia. Suspicions have been raised that it might be illegally held elsewhere as well.
Some lethal agents, like anthrax bacteria, are highly durable and could pose a long-term danger at a site of infestation. This was amply demonstrated after anthrax spores leaked from threat letters that were sent in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Scores of buildings were later found to contain anthrax bacteria, including the Capitol, the Senate and House office buildings, the Federal Reserve, the Pentagon, and numerous postal facilities. Several remained closed for months before they were properly decontaminated. One postal sorting center didn't reopen until 2005.
The danger posed by biological weapons continues to be broadly recognized. A 2012 Aspen Institute report on weapons of mass destruction, titled "WMD Terrorism," reiterated a White House determination that "effective dissemination of a lethal biological agent within an unprotected population could place at risk the lives of hundreds of thousands of people."
With this understanding, it would be irresponsible not to press for full disclosure about Syria's biological program. Views about the Syrian program vary from the belief that it poses no immediate threat to worry that it might already include the production capability of agents that cause anthrax, botulism, and other fatal illnesses.
A 2008 assessment by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency reflects this uncertainty. It affirms that Syria "has a program to develop select biological agents as weapons." Yet it also says the regime "is not known to have successfully weaponized biological agents in an effective delivery system." The statement, larded with qualification, hardly offers a sense of comfort.