Lawmaker from a Lyme-plagued district demands to know if DoD scientists ever used infected ticks as weapons

FILE – In this undated file photo provided by the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a blacklegged tick, also known as a deer tick, rests on a plant. Non-native ticks, including some with significant veterinary and medical importance, are showing up in Alaska and health officials fear a warmer climate may allow them to become established. A collaborative project between the University of Alaska and state wildlife and veterinary officials is working to understand the risk of non-native ticks such as blacklegged ticks and pathogens they could carry. (CDC via AP, File) Associated Press
  • A New Jersey congressman added an amendment to a defence spending bill that would require the Department of Defence Inspector General to look into whether military facilities experimented with using ticks to spread biological weapons.
  • “Lyme Disease is endemic to his District,” a spokesperson for Rep. Christopher Smith told INSIDER, referring to the book “Bitten: The Secret History of Lyme Disease,” which posits that some diseased ticks were released from government facilities, causing a spike in Lyme cases.
  • Some experts caution against the book’s claims, stating that Lyme has been evident in humans for centuries, on top of questions about how tick-borne illnesses would make sense as a military weapon.
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The US military has a long history of developing dangerous chemical weapons, from Agent Orange, a defoliant that has left Vietnam-era vets with Leukemia and other life-threatening illnesses, to the nerve agent VX, which killed North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s half-brother Kim Jong Nam in minutes in 2017.

But a New Jersey lawmaker is concerned that the Pentagon may be hiding research about developing Lyme disease as a biological weapon, part of an unlikely theory that these alleged experiments led to increased Lyme disease infections in the US.

Rep. Christopher Smith of New Jersey proposed an amendment to the National Defence Authorization Act (NDAA), which passed the House last week, requiring the Department of Defence Inspector General investigate whether the DoD experimented with using ticks to spread diseases like Lyme between 1950 and 1975.

Smith’s amendment is based on the idea that insects infected with Lyme disease may have escaped from government labs at Plum Island, New York, and Fort Detrick, Maryland and then begun infecting the civilian population.

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“Lyme Disease is endemic to his District. The recently published book [‘Bitten’] leaves questions about tick-borne diseases as bioweapons unanswered,” Julia Nesta, a spokesperson for Smith, told INSIDER via email. Smith’s office did not respond to a request for further information.

Smith’s office referred to “Bitten: The Secret History of Lyme Disease,” by Kris Newby, a science writer and former Lyme sufferer. “Bitten” relies on interviews with the late Willy Burgdorfer, a Swiss-born scientist who worked as a bioweapons specialist for the Defence Department and is credited with discovering the bacteria that causes Lyme disease.

Smith said there was evidence that Burgdorfer and his colleagues “stuffed ticks with pathogens to cause severe disability, disease – even death – to potential enemies.”

“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 per cent of all patients suffering from chronic Lyme disease – Americans have a right to know whether any of this is true,” Smith said on the House floor.

Newby’s book posits that the DoD research facilities could have released diseased ticks into the general population, causing an increase in Lyme disease cases during the middle of the 20th century, according to Newsweek.

Plum Island
Plum Island Fire Department firefighters decontaminate their suits after identifying several hazardous materials during a collective training event at the Plum Island Animal Disease Research Facility, New York, May 2, 2018. The event brought together the resources of several fire departments, the 106th Air Rescue Wing, the 24th Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Team, and the Department of Homeland Security to respond to a simulated containment breach at the research facility Sgt. Harley Jelis / (U.S. Army National Guard / DVIDS

Newby spoke with INSIDER via phone, saying that Burgdorfer’s original lab notes and and letters, as well as interviews with the scientist when he was in his 80s and suffering from Parkinson’s, suggest that he was putting biological agents like Venezuelan equine encephalitis in ticks. Newby said that the insects that concerned her were those infected with Lyme and another illness – what she calls a “germ gang bang.”

While Lyme can be very serious if untreated, it is often curable with antibiotics and wouldn’t cause an immediate disruption on the battlefield, like VX or other deadly chemical weapons would. Newby said she spoke with a former CIA operative who said he dropped two canisters of infested ticks over Cuba in 1962, during Operation Mongoose.

While Newby said that the operation “probably didn’t work,” she told INSIDER that “bug-borne weapons are the perfect weapon” because they’re difficult to protect yourself against, and they don’t destroy infrastructure.

Still, ticks are unlikely to have been useful as a weapon. They can’t bite individuals with any specificity or on any timeline, and the effects take days or weeks to affect a person’s health. There’s also little evidence that tick populations in North America were impacted by proximity to these DoD labs.

Dr. Richard S. Ostfeld, a researcher at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem studies, told INSIDER that the tick that spreads Lyme “was known to exist throughout the eastern United States before the discovery of Lyme disease in the 1970s and 80s, so the evidence regarding the distribution of the tick is not consistent with the notion that it was somehow released on Plum Island.”

Ostfeld also said that Idoxes, or blacklegged, ticks, which carry Lyme, “are frequently infected with multiple disease agents” and that “the main source of these multiple infections in ticks is small wild mammals like white-footed mice and eastern chipmunks.”

The House vote will add $US1 million to the Centres for Disease Control’s Lyme research budget and require the Pentagon to report on “whether any ticks or insects used in such experiments were released outside of any laboratory by accident or experiment design.”

The Pentagon Inspector General did not respond to INSIDER’s request for comment on this story. The government facilities at Fort Ditrick and Plum Island did not respond to emails seeking comment.