The House of Representatives has instructed the Pentagon to disclose whether it used ticks to infect the American public with Lyme disease between 1950 and 1975. The allegation comes from Chris Smith, a Republican representative for New Jersey.
A long-standing campaigner on Lyme disease, Smith says the claims are from a new book about the illness and the man who discovered it – a bioweapons scientist called Willy Burgdorfer.
There are issues with these allegations – not least that Burgdorfer didn’t discover Lyme disease until 1982, almost a decade after it’s claimed the ticks may have been used. Other scientists have dismissed the claims, and there is no proof that they are true.
But the US does have a history of testing biological weapons on the public.
A history of testing
The US biological weapons programme started during World War II. But the first real public test didn’t happen until 1949, when scientists put harmless bacteria in the air conditioning system at the Pentagon to see what a biological weapon might look like.
A year later, the US Navy carried out Operation Sea-Spray. The coast of San Francisco in California was sprayed with two types of bacteria, Bacillus globigii and Serratia marcesens. These bacteria are supposed to be safe, but Bacillus globigii is now listed as a pathogen, causes food poisoning, and can hurt anyone with a weak immune system.
As for Serratia marcesens, 11 people were admitted to hospital with serious bacterial infections after the San Francisco test. One of them – Edward Nevin – died three weeks later.
In 1951, tests were also carried out at the Norfolk Naval Supply Center in Virginia – a massive base that equips the US Navy. Fungal spores were dispersed to see how they would infect workers unpacking crates there. Most of the workers were African-American and the scientists wanted to test a theory that they were more susceptible to fungal disease than Caucasians.
In 1997, the National Research Council revealed that the US also used chemicals to test the potential of biological weapons in the 1950s. Zinc cadmium sulphide was dispersed by plane and sprayed over a number of cities, including St Louis in Missouri and Minneapolis in Minnesota. These cites were chosen because they were similar to Soviet targets such as Moscow in terms of terrain, weather and population.
The council concluded that no one was hurt and that the level of chemical used was not harmful, but in 2012, sociology professor Lisa Martino-Taylor claimed that there was a spike in cancer rates that could be connected back to the chemicals, which she alleges were radioactive. Nothing has since emerged to back up her claims.