9 February 1917 – Germs from the air

Following a letter on 18 January 1917 from retired Colonel Sir Arthur Davidson to Lord Hardinge, Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office the War Cabinet asked various bodies to examine the possible spread of epidemics by dropping germs from the air.

Today, the War Cabinet decided not to waste any more resources on the subject as the likelihood of it occurring was minimal and in any case any infections could be contained by measures already in place.

The Royal Society’s War Committee noted:

“The Committee do not consider that the risk of any extensive outbreak of disease in this country could arise from the scattering of disease germs from hostile aircraft. Should local outbreaks of infection be thus produced, they could probably be dealt with by ordinary administrative means. It is not at present worth while to take scientific men from other and more important duties to devise methods of retaliation. A number of such means could be improvised by biological preparation in two or three weeks, if it should become necessary.”
The Army Sanitary Committee added:
“The Meeting was of opinion that the danger of the introduction of disease in any proportion (which could not be readily dealt with under existing facilities), by means of germs dropped from aircraft, is so remote as to make it undesirable at this stage to divert tbe services of scientific men, which are fully occupied in other directions, to the previous preparation of possible retaliative measures. These it is thought would probably be readily improvisable at short notice should the necessity arise.”
Dr. A. Newsholme, C.B., Medical Officer of the Local Government Board noted:
“a) Spread of disease by means of disease germs dropped from aeroplanes is highly improbable. The production of human infection, when possible by such means, would necessarily be partial and casual, and could therefore be brought promptly within control, before it assumed epidemic proportions.
b) A possible exception to this statement is constituted by infection of public water supplies by the germs of cholera or typhoid fever. If infection of water supplies were contemplated, means other than projection of infectious material from aeroplanes would almost certainly be attempted by enemies in this country. The Board have gone thoroughly into this subject in its practical aspects.
Infection of water supplies from the air may be. dismissed as extremely improbable ; and if it occurred, the routine precautions taken by responsible water authorities to protect water consumers would, as a rule, suffice to prevent serious spread of disease.
c) It is scarcely necessary to discuss separately the risk of spread of disease such as smallpox, plague, or anthrax, or foot and mouth disease in cattle, by aerial infection from aeroplanes.There is a possibility of casual and localised infection, so far at least as smallpox is concerned ; and possibly also of foot and mouth disease. Smallpox can be controlled at each place of origin, given prompt action; and its origin in the way contemplated must be regarded as a remote contingency.
d) Against the improbable dangers under consideration, I have not suggested precautionary measures beyond conditions a remote danger must arises.”
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