In its various forms, plague has killed over 200 million people worldwide.
There are three types of plague: bubonic, pneumonic, and septicemic. They are all caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis.
In the fourteenth century, bubonic plague, also known as the “black death,” killed over 20 million people in Europe. Yersinia pestis was carried in the blood stream of black rats, and in the fleas that fed on them.
The human victims contracted the bacterial infection from fleas that had bitten infected mice and rats.
Today, bubonic plague is usually contracted this same way. Once inside the host, the Yersinia pestis bacteria replicate in the groin and axillary (arm pit) lymph nodes, causing swelling.
The bacteria then spread systemically. If the bacteria reach the lungs, pneumonic plague can result.
Symptoms begin within a week after exposure and death results within about three days of symptom onset if not treated with antibiotics.
Pneumonic plague is also caused by Yersinia pestis. Infection is usually achieved through the lungs and it is a very contagious, airborne disease. For this reason, pneumonic plague is the form of Yersinia pestis that is most expected to be used in a terrorist attack.
Turning pneumonic plague into a weapon though, would be a prohibitively expensive and sophisticated process.
Very few laboratories have the technical knowledge or equipment to weaponize pneumonic plague, but Soviet laboratories have both.
Biopreparat, the largest biological and toxin weapons program in the world, is the Soviet biological weapons program.
At one time Biopreparat employed 32,000 scientists and staff. At various times, 60,000 to 70,000 Soviet scientists and technicians worked on bioweapons before the Soviet breakup.
It is widely feared that these underpaid Russian scientists who are now leaving the country in a mass exodus will sell their knowledge, technology, and even the toxins themselves to the highest bidder, including terrorists.
Many of these toxins such as anthrax, tularemia, smallpox, etc. are unaccounted for in the disarray and confusion of the Soviet breakup. Ironically, US grants helped fund Biopreparat in the 1990’s through diverted NASA funds.
The Soviets were also less than thorough in the disposal of their bioweapons.
A good example is their disastrous attempt to hide tons of canisters containing anthrax spores on the island of Vozrozhdeniye in the Aral Sea in 1988.
They made a haphazard effort to kill the spores with bleach before burying them.
They were not entirely successful, according to the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California. This has been confirmed by Dr. Ken Alibek, the former deputy chief of Biopreparat.
The Soviets routinely tested various other agents such as smallpox, tularemia, typhus, brucellosis, glanders, and plague on the island as well.
Two rivers that feed the Aral Sea have been diverted for irrigation, and it has now lost over half its size. Because of this shrinkage of the Aral Sea, the island is now readily accessible by land.