Biological warfare, also known as germ warfare, is the use of biological toxins or infectious agents such as bacteria, viruses, insects, and fungi with the intent to kill, harm or incapacitate humans, animals or plants as an act of war. Biological weapons (often termed "bio-weapons", "biological threat agents", or "bio-agents") are living organisms or replicating entities ( i.e. viruses, which are not universally considered "alive"). Entomological (insect) warfare is a subtype of biological warfare.
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|Weapons of mass destruction|
Offensive biological warfare is prohibited under customary international humanitarian law and several international treaties. In particular, the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) bans the development, production, acquisition, transfer, stockpiling and use of biological weapons. Therefore, the use of biological agents in armed conflict is a war crime. In contrast, defensive biological research for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes is not prohibited by the BWC.
Biological warfare is distinct from warfare involving other types of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), including nuclear warfare, chemical warfare, and radiological warfare. None of these are considered conventional weapons, which are deployed primarily for their explosive, kinetic, or incendiary potential.
Biological weapons may be employed in various ways to gain a strategic or tactical advantage over the enemy, either by threats or by actual deployments. Like some chemical weapons, biological weapons may also be useful as area denial weapons. These agents may be lethal or non-lethal, and may be targeted against a single individual, a group of people, or even an entire population. They may be developed, acquired, stockpiled or deployed by nation states or by non-national groups. In the latter case, or if a nation-state uses it clandestinely, it may also be considered bioterrorism.
Biological warfare and chemical warfare overlap to an extent, as the use of toxins produced by some living organisms is considered under the provisions of both the BWC and the Chemical Weapons Convention. Toxins and psychochemical weapons are often referred to as midspectrum agents. Unlike bioweapons, these midspectrum agents do not reproduce in their host and are typically characterized by shorter incubation periods.