Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives quietly passed a bill requiring the Inspector General of the Department of Defense (DoD) to conduct a review into whether the Pentagon experimented with ticks and other blood-sucking insects for use as biological weapons between 1950 and 1975.
If the Inspector General finds that such experiments occurred, then, according to the bill, they must provide the House and Senate Armed Services committees with a report on the scope of the research and “whether any ticks or insects used in such experiments were released outside of any laboratory by accident or experiment design,” potentially leading to the spread of diseases such as Lyme.
The amendment was put forward by Rep. Chris Smith, a Republican from New Jersey, who was “inspired” by several books and articles claiming that the U.S. government had conducted research at facilities such as Fort Detrick, Maryland, and Plum Island, New York, for this purpose.
One of the books that Smith refers to—called Bitten: The Secret History of Lyme Disease and Biological Weapons—was published earlier this year, authored by Stanford University science writer and former Lyme suffer Kris Newby. It features interviews with late Swiss-born scientist Willy Burgdorfer—the man credited with discovering the bacterial pathogen that causes Lyme disease—who once worked for the DoD as a bioweapons specialist.
“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,” Smith said during the debate on the House floor.
“With Lyme disease and other tick-borne diseases exploding in the United States—with an estimated 300,000 to 437,000 new cases diagnosed each year and 10-20 percent of all patients suffering from chronic Lyme disease—Americans have a right to know whether any of this is true,” he said. “And have these experiments caused Lyme disease and other tick-borne diseases to mutate and to spread?” Smith asked.
Bitten suggests that military scientists dropped weaponized insects which had been deliberately infected from the air during tests. It also claims that uninfected bugs were released into residential areas in the U.S. to see how they spread, The Guardian reported.
Newby contends that these experiments could have—accidentally or deliberately—led to the spread of Lyme disease in the 1960s. And event though, Richard Nixon banned biological weapons research in 1969, such experiments may have continued, Roll Call reported.
According to Smith, the investigation into the claims should attempt to address several questions: “What were the parameters of the program? Who ordered it? Was there ever any accidental release anywhere or at any time of any diseased ticks? Were any ticks released by design? Did the program contribute to the disease burden? Can any of this information help current-day researchers find a way to mitigate these diseases?”