Intended for healthcare professionals


US Pentagon is told to investigate claims that Lyme disease is escaped bioweapon from cold war

BMJ 2019; 366 doi: (Published 19 July 2019) Cite this as: BMJ 2019;366:l4784
  1. Owen Dyer
  1. Montreal

The US House of Representatives has ordered the Pentagon’s inspector general to conduct a review of whether the defence department “experimented with ticks and other insects regarding use as biological weapons between 1950 and 1975.”1

The demand for a review, proposed by Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican, passed easily among a raft of other late amendments to a House bill on defence spending. It must still be “reconciled” with the Senate’s version of the spending bill, but Smith said that he was confident of Senate support.

He told the House that his amendment had been “inspired by a number of books and articles suggesting that significant research had been done at US government facilities including Fort Detrick, Maryland, and Plum Island, New York, to turn ticks and other insects into bioweapons.”

Biological research

Plum Island, a secure government biological research site since 1945, lies directly across a narrow stretch of water from Lyme, Connecticut. In 1975 a cluster of paediatric illness was initially characterised there as juvenile rheumatoid arthritis before its epidemiology led researchers to conclude that “Lyme arthritis” was spread by an “arthropod vector.”2

In 1981, after the deer tick was identified as the vector, the medical entomologist William Burgdorfer isolated and identified the pathogen behind Lyme disease. This spirochete (spiral bacterium) was subsequently named after him, Borrelia burgdorferi.

Years later Burgdorfer said in an interview with an independent film maker, “Does Borrelia burgdorferi have the potential for biological warfare? Looking at the data, it already has.”

The video was seen by a former Lyme disease patient, Kris Newby, a communications manager at Stanford Medical School in California. She later interviewed the retired Burgdorfer, who by then had late stage Parkinson’s disease, and gained access to his scientific notes. Newby wrote a book, Bitten: The Secret History of Lyme Disease and Biological Weapons, which was published this May.

That book, which Smith brought to Congress, is the source of the allegations the Pentagon is being ordered to investigate. It claims that Burgdorfer, before his public health work, had bred ticks for the US government, injecting them with various pathogens and selecting the ticks that made animals the sickest for further breeding.

Smith told the House, “Those interviews combined with access to Dr Burgdorfer’s lab files suggest that he and other bioweapons specialists stuffed ticks with pathogens to cause severe disability, disease—even death—to potential enemies.”

But Newby acknowledges that Burgdorfer never explicitly told her that Lyme disease resulted from that work.

There is no suggestion that B burgdorferi is a new organism. It is found throughout Europe and Asia and has been isolated in ancient remains. The characteristic bullseye rash of its bite has been documented for many years around the world, sometimes accompanied by other symptoms. But recent research has suggested that American B burgdorferi has a distinct clonal lineage, more virulent and with greater inflammatory potential.3

Cold war experiments

It is widely acknowledged that, in the early cold war era, many governments experimented with biological agents and vectors including ticks and mosquitoes. Insects were bred in large numbers at Fort Detrick in Maryland.

Field experiments were carried out, not only to test offensive techniques but to measure the likely effects of an enemy biological attack. In the UK an anthrax bombing test in 1942 left the Scottish island of Gruinard uninhabitable for over 50 years. And government scientists in both the UK and the US released clouds of the bacterium Serratia marcescens in populated areas. It was believed to be harmless, but this was later contested.45

It remains unknown whether the researchers who first named Lyme disease in 1977 were identifying a genuinely new phenomenon, finding a new level of virulence, or belatedly recognising a disease that had circulated for many years. Lyme disease reporting in the 1980s was chaotic or non-existent. The number of cases doubled in the ’90s, but growth has since slowly plateaued at the national level.

Lyme disease has surged in some US states, such as Wisconsin. But Rebecca Osborn, a biologist at Wisconsin’s public health department, said that this was not a case of a new bacterium sweeping through the tick population but rather of the tick itself marching southwards across the state. “We’re confident that we have good data on land use, deer population, and similar factors, which are entirely adequate to explain the spread in Wisconsin,” she told The BMJ.

Eva Sapi, director of the Lyme disease programme at the University of New Haven, Connecticut, said, “I will be very curious about the results of the investigation.” But, she cautioned, “Nature can engineer strange things.”


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