Intentionally Spreading COVID Could Be Treated as Terrorism

disease spreading could fall under umbrella of germ warfare, justice department says

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

The Justice Department suggested using terrorism laws on COVID spreaders, The Washington Post reported. Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen said that the coronavirus meets the standards of a biological agent and can therefore “implicate the nation’s terror-related statutes.” Germ warfare dates back over 3,000 years.

3D illustration of germs
As the Justice Department looks ahead at potential crimes that could occur during the coronavirus pandemic, infected individuals who purposely try to infect others could face violations of terrorism laws. Photo by CoreDESIGN / Shutterstock

According to The Washington Post, people intentionally spreading the coronavirus could be responded to by law-enforcement officials, using a surprising and very serious template. “The Justice Department’s second-highest ranking official told federal law enforcement officials across the country that they should consider using terrorism laws to investigate and prosecute those who try to intentionally infect others with COVID-19,” the article said. “The guidance came from a memorandum from Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey A. Rosen, addressing the many potential crimes prosecutors might encounter in the wake of the global pandemic.”

Before his unfortunate passing earlier this year, Dr. Bruce E. Fleury, who was Professor of the Practice in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Tulane University, taught several lecture series for The Great Courses, including a course titled Mysteries of the Microscopic World. In that course, he shared his expert knowledge on microbial warfare, which would become particularly relevant in the time of coronavirus.

Early Germ Warfare

Humans have used disease as a weaponized agent since long before humans even knew what germs were.

“The first known use of germ warfare was during the Anatolian War, around about 1320-1318 BCE, when the Hittites drove sheep and donkeys infected with tularemia into enemy territory, but the true masters of microbial mayhem were the Scythians,” Dr. Fleury said. “Herodotus tells us that the Scythians in the 4th century BCE, coated their arrows with a home brew that must have been swarming with nasty microbes, including, we think, those that cause tetanus and gangrene.”

How did this happen? According to Dr. Fleury, they started by extracting venom from freshly killed vipers and separating the serum from human blood. After this, the Scythians mixed the blood serum with animal droppings and buried it in a leather pouch until it had thoroughly rotted. Then, they mixed the contents of the pouch with the snake’s venom and the remains of its body. This pungent poison caused untold suffering for the enemies of the Scythians.

Making a Mess of Things

Later, warriors stopped relying on poisons and venom to wage germ warfare on their enemies. They realized that dead bodies were enough to sicken and kill them, leading to unpleasant and messy battle tactics.

The Romans and the Persians used to regularly poison their enemies by dumping dead animals into their wells,” Dr. Fleury said. “In 1155, the Holy Roman Emperor Barbarossa poisoned the wells of Tortona with the bodies of dead soldiers.”

However, Dr. Fleury said, the Turkish army took this idea to a new and gruesome level in 1346 BCE. The Genoese controlled the Crimean city of Caffa on the Black Sea, which they acquired from the Mongols in 1266 BCE. The Genoese used Caffa as a port for trade, crushing their competition. The Mongols didn’t take kindly to this.

“In 1343, Jani Beg, the new Kahn of the Golden Horde, attacked Caffa with his Turkish mercenaries,” Dr. Fleury said. “After three years of siege, the Turks were completely fed up and suffering from plague, so they decided to use their own infected dead as weapons. They used catapults to launch the dead plague corpses into the city, until the defenders sickened and died.”

Our understanding of the microscopic world has grown drastically even in the last century, so it’s little wonder that the Justice Department recommended taking COVID spreading so seriously. For now, though, humanity thankfully seems to be leaving the catapults at home.

Dr. Fleury is Professor of the Practice in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Tulane University

This article contains material taught by Dr. Bruce E. Fleury. Dr. Fleury was Professor of the Practice in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Tulane University, where he previously earned his MS and PhD in Biology. He earned a BA from the University of Rochester in Psychology and General Science.