Botox: blow-ups for biological warfare

Text and Illustration by
Christoph Miler
Thursday, March 15, 2023

Chances are high that the word “Botox” makes you think of eliminated eye wrinkles, filled laughter lines, and blown-up lips. Also, you might think of a frozen celebrity face that looks like a surrealist painting. Or it may just remind you of a dear friend who got an injection recently, joining the club of seven million others who rejuvenated their faces in 2020.

Botox is booming and by today’s standards, it seems quite likely that there is also a clinic around your corner, ready to roll back the clock on your appearance. But watch out, Botox cannot only change your look. It can also kill you.

Botulinum toxin, as Botox is scientifically named, happens to be one of the most toxic substances known to date. It works by blocking the signals from the nerves to the muscles. If the dosage is very low, muscles relax and wrinkles soften, your face smoothens and you look younger; if the dosage is too high, muscles are paralyzed and eventually respiratory and cardiac failure occurs, and you die. A thousandth of a gram is enough to kill an average adult and a single gram of crystallized Botox, evenly dispersed and inhaled, could infect up to one million people with botulism, the lethal disease caused by the toxin. This is why Botox is used only in extremely low concentrations for cosmetic treatments and why governments around the world are highly alarmed about a growing Botox market and its potential abuse for bioterrorism.1

Frighteningly, the toxic substance has already made its first appearance as a weapon. Canada, the US, and Japan produced the toxin during World War II, the secret service of South Africa’s apartheid regime mixed it into the drinks of political enemies in the 1980s, and Saddam Hussein equipped more than 100 Iraqi bombs with it during the Persian Gulf war in 1991.

The production sites for these Botox bombs and liquids won’t go down in history as quaint places. However, the perhaps most terrifying Botox laboratory was situated on a remote island in the middle of the Aral Sea, named Aralsk-7. Established in 1948, the facility was at the heart of Biopreparat, the USSR’s Cold War-era biological weapons program. Needless to say, the site was a top-secret operation, including laboratories, testing grounds, and research buildings housing over hundred scientists. At Aralsk-7 they attempted to make the most toxic substance on earth even more poisonous by splicing Botox genes into other bacteria. As if this wasn’t enough, Soviet microbiologists also worked on other biological weapons that were no less frightening–manufacturing enhanced smallpox and anthrax bacteria, creating a new super-Plague, breeding exotic diseases, and growing enough germs to kill the earth’s entire population several times over. Covered in full-body suits and gas masks, the scientists cultivated Botox and its relatives in huge fermenting vats and tested their efficacy on thousands of mice, hamsters, monkeys, pigs, horses, and donkeys. Next to the horrors occurring directly on the island, the surrounding areas were not spared from occasional catastrophes and mysterious incidents either. Clouds and rainfall helped pathogens to migrate across the waters, setting the stage for unhappy encounters: one day two probably plague-infected fishermen were found dead in their boats; for a while hundreds of nets filled with perished fish were drawn from the waters, and on one occasion 50,000 antelopes dropped dead nearby within an hour. Nobody knew what had happened and most of these incidents were never examined by the Soviet leaders – quite the opposite, they were kept dead quiet.2

Only in 1992, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, did former president Boris Yeltsin decide to close, dismantle, and decontaminate the site; yet the bankrupt and paralyzed Moscow government never realized this plan.

Instead, Aralsk-7 was shut down swiftly, the scientists removed, and tonnes of Botox, anthrax, and smallpox were hastily dumped in pits – as though sweeping dust under the carpet – creating one of the largest stockpiles of pathogens in human history.

At this point one can only wonder: from what dark abyss could such a place emerge? Well, let’s dare to throw a glance into this gaping chasm.


It comes with sinister irony that the history of Botox warfare starts with flesh ageing badly.

Around the 1800s, several towns in southern Germany were mysteriously plagued by a series of devastating outbreaks of meat poisoning. The beloved blood sausages in Württemberg – often smoked and preserved in closed wooden boxes for intensified taste – were of particularly suspicious concern. A growing number of people experienced blurry vision, slurred speech, vomiting, and sometimes even died after enjoying a hearty piece of sausage. The physicians of the day documented these symptoms in great detail and recorded the first clinical descriptions of “sausage poisoning”, yet they had no clue about the actual cause, nor any idea of how to treat it. Speculations about the toxic source included prussic acid, unhealthy pigs, and toxic plants. Other conspiracy theories claimed that electricity caused by thunderstorms or the supernatural skills of witches were spoiling the sausages.3

It was not until 1897 that the Belgian bacteriologist Emile van Ermengem presented the real cause of sausage poisoning to the world: the bacterium Clostridium botulinum (its name uses the Latin word for sausage, “botulus”).

While investigating an epidemic caused by poisonous ham, van Ermengem showed that the bacterium – which occurs in abundance in soil, river sediments, and animals – would transform into toxic Botox in oxygen-free and warm conditions, such as in poorly preserved food or canned meat4. This simple observation might look like a scientific side hustle at first glance, but in fact it presented the very first blueprint for the cultivation of Botox – and thereby opened Pandora’s box5.

Van Ermengem’s initial findings were made during the golden age of microbiology, when sophisticated technological tools enabled one to marvel at the world in close-up. For the first time, scientists began to use the magnifying power of improved light microscopes to see what no-one had seen before, enhancing the limits of vision by 400 times. The smallest iterations of life became visible, revealing causal relationships between bacteria and disease. For the first time in history, “the invisible enemy” of bacterial life could be observed, tamed, and potentially erased to protect humans, livestock, and colonial flows of trade and labour. Nature’s caprices seemed to be a bit more under control, life and death became a bit less of a mystery, and modern science appeared to be triumphant in its ability to cure and heal6. Yet at the same time it was on the verge of tragedy.

By the beginning of the 20th century, major geopolitical conflicts were looming on the horizon and various nations got interested in microbiology as a tool for wielding power.

The new scientific knowledge about bacterial growth seemed highly attractive, since it enabled one to attack (or better: infect) the enemy from afar, without losing soldiers to bullets and bombs. Seen this way, microbiology presented the possibility of transcending the traditional limits of military action. Suddenly, the age-old techniques of vernacular biowarfare, such as catapulting plague victims into hostile territory or distributing blankets from smallpox patients to your enemy, looked fairly inefficient. Consequently, microbiology would be applied in the service of human megalomania all too soon, with Botox deployed on the front line.

However, to utilize Botox for warfare in the most destructive manner, you need to transform and refine its bacterial raw material, preferably on an industrial scale. For this, a new kind of complex first had to emerge, in which microbiological methods, military strategies, and industrial efficiency could strike up their dance. Conveniently, the blueprint for such an operation seemed to be at hand, as industrial capitalism and its paradigmatic factory system were already blooming.

One of the first biowarfare complexes that grew factory-fresh pathogens was Japan’s Unit 731, where research was conducted from 1932 until the end of World War II. Located near the village of Pingfang in Manchuria, the secret complex consisted of more than 150 buildings and five satellite camps, and employed over 3,000 scientists. Their task was to produce Botox and other biological agents in quantities that could wipe out a medium-sized city7. To accomplish this horrifying task, Unit 731 researchers conducted toxic experiments on human and non-human guinea pigs alike. Over 10,000 war prisoners, local minority-group members, and thousands of animals died during its existence. Nevertheless, at the end of World War II, all official information about these deadly experiments was suppressed and charges for war crimes against Japan were dropped in exchange for experimental results with the US and UK8. This research seems quite likely to have been the missing piece in the Americans’ own Botox research.

In 1946, shortly after this highly problematic exchange, the Americans were able to publish the first procedure for the production of crystallized Botox, which is Botox in its cleanest and most toxic form. The process was developed by American microbiologist Carl Lamanna, who worked for the US military at Camp Detrick, where the US had started their biological warfare program in 1942. He and his colleagues teamed up with German scientists, who were recruited as part of Project Paperclip, a secret intelligence program that sent 1,600 scientists from the Third Reich to American laboratories to boost US military research. Powerful enhancements of pathogens like Botox could exemplify the scientific superiority of their political system in the arms race of the Cold War.

As an unforeseeable side effect, the purification of Botox heralded the start of spasm treatments, and also laid the foundation for today’s Botox beauty injection madness. Yet if you had enabled the scientists at Camp Detrick to see what the future of their work would hold, it would quite likely have been shrugged off9. Microbiology, in that time and place, was all about armament at apocalyptic scales, to set the Soviet’s teeth on edge. And indeed, the Communist party got nervous and started to drastically expand its own biowarfare program by employing around 30,000 people working at 18 undisclosed sites – creating a complex network that would be considered a large company even today.

At these places, Botox and other pathogens were turned and twisted under frightening conditions for more than 30 years. Leaking toxins, sick communities living close to the sites, and a devastating anthrax outbreak (sometimes referred to as “biological Chernobyl”) apparently did not provide enough reasons to stop the program. It wasn’t until the collapse of the USSR that some of these facilities became part of the civilian biodefense program, whereas others were shut down or forgotten, and are slowly decaying10. Which brings us back to Aralsk-711.


Today, the research facilities of Aralsk-7 remain deserted and the island uninhabited. According to Nikita Makarenko, an Uzbek journalist who went there in 201912, “it feels like a post-apocalyptic movie set: no people, no animals. (…) Visitors to the island will see burned-out shells of military might, plus abandoned buildings where Cold War-era relics exist, such as the menu of a local restaurant or a list of soldiers going on vacation.” Apparently, not a lot has changed since The New York Times visited the island 20 years earlier and reported that “the enclosed breeding areas that once housed thousands of animals killed in the tests are now empty, windows smashed or missing, roofs collapsed” and the stench is “a mixture of bleach, dust, animal dung and death”13.

If we digest this rare media coverage of the island, we get the impression of a territory that’s pretty much dead space. Aralsk-7 seems to resemble a long-forgotten cemetery, and at a first glance it might be just interesting enough for a weird sort of cult-of-death adventure tourism, where nothing is to be found apart from wreckage, soil, and sand. Yet not everyone has left.

Even though the ruins of Aralsk-7 might appear deserted today, the highly toxic bacteria live on. Anthrax survives in the island’s soil, Botox is sealed inside the buried corpses of test animals, and Petri dishes inside the ruins of the laboratories could be keeping plague bacteria alive.

We might be confronted with this toxic chapter sooner than later, as the Aral Sea is withdrawing more and more: due to thirsty Soviet agriculture and the Central Asian cotton industry, around 80% of the water has disappeared, with the result that the island is directly connected to the mainland now.

Additionally, various economic endeavours lead to an ongoing increase in visitors. Nowadays, scavengers enter the island regularly without protective clothing to pilfer metals from the abandoned labs and sell it on nearby markets. At the same time, a conglomerate of multinational companies and the governments of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan (the two countries that share the territory of the island) have started to explore oil and gas fields in the Aral Sea.

Thus, it will be only a matter of time until scavengers, petrol drillers, or adventure tourists get in touch with the long-forgotten pathogens. Even if we took precautions, experts fear that animals such as gophers, lizards, and birds could stir up germs and carry them to the mainland14. Needless to say, Aralsk-7 is complicated territory, but surely not lifeless territory.

Interestingly, this strange aliveness can teach us something about our limited view of time and the rhythms of life. 30 years ago, pathogens were buried in the ground to get rid of them. Out of sight, out of mind, for the benefit of everybody. In this vein the Soviets – as well as the political systems of the West – had the urgent drive to move society forward. At the speed of light there was no looking back, no one seemed to ask the questions these bacteria silently raised.

The dogma of progress is an enticing force that knows neither side effects nor long-term consequences, with a singular, bigger, and better tomorrow always luring on the horizon. Viewed through these rose-tinted glasses, there is simply no room left for alternative timelines and rhythms of life.

As described by anthropologist Anna Tsing, it is only “without that driving beat, that we might notice other temporal patterns”, recognizing that “each living thing remakes the world through seasonal pulses of growth.”15

And it is at Aralsk-7, where we can observe how these different pulses of growth overlap, forming confusing patterns and opening up possibilities of all sorts. Just look at the different timelines that intermingle in the soil of Aralsk-7: deep underground, plankton organisms metamorphose into crude oil over several hundred thousand of years, while global oil companies pump up the black gold within weeks, potentially drilling through Botox particles that were buried some decades ago and are carried by earthworms towards the sun just now.

Here, time is not a linear forward march, whose pace is only dictated by human fantasies of control and their techno-scientific tools. Other living entities have a say too. Bacteria, dozing in the soil might transform the present into modes of a Cold War-esque past, throwing us back in time without official announcement. Or the other way around: At Aralsk-7, the future might even flow backwards, when software models predict oil prices, which in turn influence today’s speed of petrol drilling and the chances of encountering contaminated animal corps.

No, this is not a timeline that reflects intentional, linear progress at all; much more, this is (as Ursula K. LeGuin put it in one of her sci-fi novels) a timeline that resembles the web of a spider on LSD.

Things are entangled in myriad ways and the potentially endless number of spatial and temporal juxtapositions holds the potential of multiple futures, not only one. It is a polyphony of possibilities, an open-ended assemblage.

The patterns of this assemblage are influenced by the vicissitudes of political will, economic markets, and environmental factors. Seen this way, Aralsk-7 is not a one-off biowarfare nightmare, but becomes a paradigm. War, global financial crises, climate change, animal behaviour, or adventure tourism can all reconfigure the balance between pathogens and humans. To a certain extent it’s coincidence, since any of our actions might just activate germs that have lurked in forests, lakes, or grounds for decades.

But beyond any doubt, capitalist activities of expansionism bring us in closer proximity to them16. Through the ongoing processes of logging, drilling, pumping, and mining into the most remote corners of the world, bodies enter uncharted microbial territory with uncertain consequences, raising the chances of devastating outbreaks. In 2021, we know this story.

Aralsk-7 seems to be one of many pivotal points of an increasingly fragile human-microbial balance. Understandably, such places make health agencies and secret services around the world rather restless. They worry not only about the possibility that petrol workers and scavengers could contract a disease accidentally (spreading a nasty version of the Plague or Cholera, as happened with Ebola or SARS), but also about bioterrorists entering the island and picking up some anthrax or Botox for their next plot.

Ultimately, both pathogens are listed as Category A bioterrorism threats by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention17. As a precaution, the US has already flooded the whole island with tons of bleach. It was a well-intentioned 6-million-dollar clean-up endeavour, and yet it only scratched the surface; experts are quite certain that deep-buried pathogens likely survived.

However, these days terrorists might not even have to embark on the tiresome journey to the remote facilities of Aralsk-7 to grab some Botox raw material. After all, the lethal substance is ubiquitous today anyway. Botox injectable shots, beauty parties, and lunch clinics have entered our lives since its official approval by the US Food and Drug Administration in 2002. The market has grown by more than 850%, making it a lucrative $4.9 billion industry today.

This tremendous supply has not only increased the number of swollen lips and frozen faces but has also created new opportunities for criminals and terrorists. For example, Allergan – by far the world’s leading Botox producer – regularly transports dangerous quantities of the toxin from the US to their manufacturing facility in Ireland.
Understandably, Allergan isn’t just using the next FedEx cargo plane for this endeavour but deploys a heavily guarded private jet with a top-secret flight schedule18. Still, we wouldn’t want to imagine what would happen if the flight plan were secretly passed to a black-market dealer.

Apart from such an apocalyptical coup that would piggyback on today’s globalized Botox production chain, terrorists could also utilize the substance in less time-consuming ways. With a growing market, counterfeit Botox traders spring up like mushrooms on the internet. Their illicit products can be found and purchased easily, simply by typing “cheap Botox” into the search engine of your choice. According to a study of the US Defence Threat Reduction Agency19, “this is an astounding development because for the first time it appears that a well-known biological warfare agent is easier to acquire than a gun, thus raising security issues never before encountered by the international security community.”20

Consequently, these developments lead to a new kind of biowarfare armament. Today, states prepare against bioterror attacks by upgrading their national biodefense labs, where vaccines are developed and pathogens are investigated.

However, this strategy seems to backfire, since high-containment labs might increase, not reduce, the risk of outbreaks. Despite their reinforced walls and high-end air filters, USA Today documented hundreds of safety violations and accidents in US biodefense labs in 2015, while The Guardian reported on more than a hundred near-misses or accidents in British high-security labs in five years21.

Apparently, it’s not only the crumbling, clichéd Soviet infrastructure of Aralsk-7 that is causing problems. We might instead have a systemic problem at hand, when bacteria are grown and circulated on planetary scale to generate profit and exert geopolitical power.

This issue might be nourished by the impression that it’s those who can control, commodify, and exploit bacterial flows in the most efficient way who will be victorious. The underlying assumption is that bacteria are passive objects, ready to be produced, packaged, and applied like any other industrial good.

When in fact, the opposite is true: microbes are not like inanimate, raw goods to be harvested, but actively shape their environment through myriad entanglements with an endless number of other organisms. Plants, fungi, animals, humans; microbes are flowing through all sorts of living things and sustain life. Therefore, the very idea of domesticating bacterial agency in its totality seems to be a grand delusion.

Aralsk 7 vividly hammers home to us what this means. Messing with the abundance of microbial species on planetary scale may not only cause unexpected ecological and social side effects, but may alter life on this planet altogether in unforeseeable ways22. Granted, in the short term, the production of factory-fresh microbes might help us to win wars, combat wrinkles, and fight off folds. But in the long run, it’s not us who will balance the books of this globalized industry: it will be the microbes.

This Article has been first published in the book «Elements» in 2021.  Learn more about the publication here.

1 Stephen S. Arnon; Robert Schechter; Thomas V. Inglesby; et al., “Botulinum Toxin as a Biological Weapon: Medical and Public Health Management”, in JAMA, 2001, 285(8): 1059–1070.

2 Christopher Pala, “Anthrax Island”, in The New York Times, January 12, 2003.

3 Michael L. Geiges, “The History of Botulism”, in Hyperhidrosis and Botulinum Toxin in Dermatology, 2002, 30: 77–93.

4 Van Ermengem also suggested that the bacteria could be neutralized by “being thoroughly cooked”, today known as botulinum cook in the food industry, where canned food is put in a pressure cooker at 121 °C for three minutes to clean our tasty preserved beans and soups of nasty Clostridium botulinum.

5 Michael L. Geiges, “The History of Botulism”, in Hyperhidrosis and Botulinum Toxin in Dermatology, 2002, 30: 77–93.

6 Flavio D'Abramo, Sybille Neumeyer: A historical and political epistemology of microbes (John Wiley & Sons Ltd., 12 July 2020).

7 On top of that, Unit 731 is especially infamous for utilizing the Plague as biological weapon, by breeding the Plague-infected fleas that were dropped from Japanese aircrafts onto Chinese cities.

8 Stefan Riedel: Biological Warfare and Bioterrorism: A Historical Review (Baylor University Medical Center Proceedings, 2004), 17:4.

9 Frank J Lebeda, PhD, Michael Adler, PhD, Zygmunt F Dembek, MS USAR (Ret.), “Yesterday and Today: The Impact of Research Conducted at Camp Detrick on Botulinum Toxin”, in Military Medicine, 2018, Volume 183, Issue 5-6, Pages 85–95

10 The madness of the biological arms race officially ended in 1972, when most nations signed the “Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction,” known as the BWC. Unofficially though, biological weapons research is still going on in secret labs in most countries. Experts even estimate, that the intensity of state-sponsored programs for biological weapons has increased since the convention was signed.

11 Stefan Riedel, Biological Warfare and Bioterrorism: A Historical Review, Baylor University Medical Center Proceedings, 2004, 17:4.

12 Nikita Makarenko, Your Chance to See an Abandoned Soviet Island With a Dark Past, accessed on April 12th, 2021, https://www.ozy.com/around-the-world/your-chance-to-see-an-abandoned-soviet-island-with-a-dark-past/91386/

13 Judith Miller, “Poison Island: a special report; At Bleak Asian Site, Killer Germs Survive”, in The New York Times, June 2, 1999.

14 Zaria Gorvett, The deadly germ warfare island abandoned by the Soviets, accessed on April 12th 2021, https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20170926-the-deadly-germ-warfare-island-abandoned-by-the-soviets

15 Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015).

16 Amanda Schaffer, “The Bugs That Live On Us and Around Us”, in The New Yorker, March 18, 2016.

17 CDC, “Botulism: Bioterrorism”, accessed on April 12th, 2021, https://www.cdc.gov/botulism/bioterrorism/index.html

18 Cynthia Koons, “The Wonder Drug for Aging”, in Bloomberg Businessweek, October 26, 2017.

19 Kenneth D. Coleman, Raymond A. Zilinskas, “Producers of Illicit Botulinum Neurotoxin (BoNT) as Security Threats”, Defense Threat Reduction Agency Advanced Systems and Concepts Office, March 2010.

20 Experts don’t think that bioterrorists could acquire sufficient amounts of Botox by hoarding cosmetic injections that were bought online. A vial of Botox currently licensed in the US contains only 0.3% of the estimated lethal inhalation dose, so one would need several hundred vials to harm an average adult. However, experts do think that terrorists could start dangerous collaborations with illegal producers to transform a living room into a small-scale biowarfare lab.

21 Elisabeth Eaves, “The Risks of Building Too Many Bio Labs”, in The New Yorker, March 18, 2020.

22 Michael R. Gillings, Ian T. Paulsen, “Microbiology of the Anthropocene”, in Anthropocene, 2014, Volume 5, pages 1–8.


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