Pentagon May Have Released Weaponized Ticks That Helped Spread of Lyme Disease: Investigation Ordered

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.

However, some Lyme disease experts are warning that Smith's claims should be viewed with plenty of caution. They include Phillip Baker, Executive Director of the American Lyme Disease Foundation (ALDF), who says Smith has been "terribly misinformed" with "false and misleading information."

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.

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?"

Despite the passing of the recent bill by the House, the American Lyme Disease Foundation's (ALDF) Phillip Baker says Smith's claims are unfounded.

"I think that Rep. Chris Smith is terribly misinformed by the Lyme disease activists and by the false and misleading information," Baker told Newsweek. "He would be well advised to check the facts by consulting the experts on Lyme disease at the National Institutes of Health or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC] for accurate and reliable information before proposing such legislation."

In a piece for the ALDF website, Baker noted that some people claim Lyme disease was introduced into the northeastern region of the U.S. after a strain of Borrelia burgdorferi—the bacterium that causes Lyme disease—escaped from the Plum Island biological warfare facility.

"However, there is ample evidence to indicate that both Ixodes ticks and B. burgdorferi were present in the U.S. well before the Plum Island facility was ever established," he wrote, adding that the center says it has never researched Lyme disease.

The symptoms of what is now known as Lyme disease were potentially first described in Scotland in 1764. Recent research has indicated that the Lyme disease bacterium was present in America in pre-Columbian times, many thousands of years before Europeans arrived on the continent.

Furthermore, Baker says the rationale for believing that Lyme disease was used as an agent of biowarfare is "flawed."

"Note that about 95 percent of cases of Lyme disease reported to the CDC occur in 12 states," he told Newsweek. "Based on what we know concerning the pathology of Lyme disease—and we know a lot—does anyone seriously think that people living in those 12 states are any more vulnerable to an enemy attack because of the high incidence of Lyme disease than those living in the remaining areas of the U.S.? That would be 'quite a stretch' to say the least."

"The main reason for considering a given pathogen for possible use as an agent of biowarfare is its ability to create terror and or havoc by causing serious incapacitating illness and/or death within a short time interval after its release," he said. "The bacterium that causes Lyme disease is not such an agent. If one were to prioritize a list of agents to be considered for use as biowarfare agents, the organisms that cause smallpox, plague, Ebola and anthrax would be at the top of the list. Only a fool would ever consider adding Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacterium that causes Lyme disease, to such a list. If it ever was given any consideration, and I have no knowledge that it ever was, it would not have been for more than a nanosecond!"

This article was updated to include additional comments and information from Phillip Baker.

tick, Lyme disease
Black-legged tick on a leaf. Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
Pentagon May Have Released Weaponized Ticks That Helped Spread of Lyme Disease: Investigation Ordered | Tech & Science