Did the Pentagon weaponize ticks with Lyme disease? Congress wants to know

The House is quietly pressuring the Pentagon’s inspector general to tell Congress whether the agency experimented with weaponizing ticks by infecting them with Lyme disease. House members also want to know whether they were released on unsuspecting members of the public — accidentally or otherwise.

An amendment introduced by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), was passed last week by voice vote during a House debate on the fiscal 2020 defense authorization bill, which passed the next day. The measure specifically requires the IG to examine “whether the Department of Defense experimented with ticks and other insects regarding its use as a biological weapon between the years of 1950 and 1975, CBS News reports.

“My amendment tasks the DoD inspector general to ask the hard questions and report back,” Smith said Friday on the House floor.

Here’s what Smith wants to investigate:

  • What were the program’s parameters?
  • Were the ticks released on purpose?
  • Who ordered this?
  • Were diseased ticks accidentally released?
  • Did the program escalate the disease burden?
  • Can the information be used to help present-day researchers find a way to mitigate the diseases?

This surely sounds like an episode of The Twilight Zone, but it’s come out amidst contentions that bioweapons specialists infected ticks with pathogens that can cause debilitating disabilities, diseases, and death among anyone considered a threat to the U.S.

Smith said he decided to add the measure to the annual defense bill after reading a series of books and articles which stated: “that significant research had been done at U.S. government facilities including Fort Detrick, Maryland, and Plum Island, New York, to turn ticks and other insects into bioweapons.”

This little girl’s rash is caused by Lyme disease. Photo by Guswen, license SA 4.0 International via Wikimedia Commons

But some experts who distrust conspiracy theories are questioning these books that claim the federal government facilitated the spread of these deadly diseases and that some federal agencies like the CDC somehow took part in a cover-up, thus concealing findings about the spread of Lyme disease.

Some of the questions surround the book Bitten: The Secret History of Lyme Disease and Biological Weapons published earlier this year, but as writer Jonathan Olivier notes, the evidence provided by the book is rather shaky. That’s largely due to the fact that it relies on statements from Swiss scientist William Burgdorfer, who discovered the bacteria that causes the disease. It was subsequently named Borrelia burgdorferi in his honor. But the problem is, despite all of the exhaustive research that author Kris Newby includes in her book, Burgdorf never actually comes out and says the Pentagon was using human guinea pigs.

So it’s no wonder that some are doubting this.

Whatever the case is, it’s worth noting that ticks can spread a staggering number of diseases that are either spread by bacteria, viruses, or parasites, the CDC reports. These diseases include babesiosis, ehrlichiosis, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, anaplasmosis, Southern Tick-Associated Illness, Tick-borne Relapsing Fever, tularemia, Q fever, Powassan encephalitis, and Colorado tick fever. Those who work outside, especially in wooded areas, near bushes or tall grass are at risk of exposure. The CDC recommends people working outside wear protective clothing during the spring and summer.

And Lyme disease itself is actually caused by four species of bacteria, the Mayo Clinic reports. In the U.S., the culprits are B. burgdorferi and Borrelia mayonii. Lyme disease is subsequently spread by an infected black-legged tick (also called the deer tick.)

Symptoms of this disease vary widely, from mild to severe ranging from bullseye-shaped rash, fever, body aches, headaches and swollen lymph nodes to (if left untreated) neurological problems that can be seriously debilitating. In instances like this, the symptoms include:

  • Neurological problems that can occur weeks, months, or years after infection. The symptoms can include inflammation of the membranes surrounding the brain (also called meningitis), temporary paralysis of one side of the face (Bell’s palsy). Victims may also have numb or weak limbs.
  • Severe joint pain. Generally, this affects the knees, but the pain can move to different joints.

There are less common symptoms that can include liver inflammation (hepatitis), heart problems, eye inflammation, and severe fatigue. While deaths from this disease are rare, they do happen from time to time.

Smith has long advocated raising awareness about this tick-borne disease and for increased efforts to prevent it. As such, he co-chairs the House Lyme Disease Caucus. Earlier this year, the caucus introduced the “Ticks: Identify, Control, and Knockout Act (TICK Act)” a measure that promotes a nationwide strategy to fight Lyme disease. If it passes, this bill will funnel an additional $180 million in funding for research on this disease, its prevention, and treatment programs. As it is, the CDC spends about $11 million yearly on Lyme disease research, which has affected some 300,000 Americans, according to estimates. An additional 30,000 cases are reported every year, the CDC reports.

Smith and other advocates of the measure hope that studying the past will provide crucial information for fighting this disease in the future, Roll Call reports. And the measure, which is really a bipartisan effort, is co-sponsored by Collin C. Peterson (D-Minn.), and by Andy Harris (R-Md.).

Pat Smith, president of the Lyme Disease Association, says she hopes the IG report will provide crucial information that will save lives.

“We need to find out: is there anything in this research that was supposedly done that can help us to find information that is germane to patient health and combating the spread of the disease,” she said.

Lyme disease symptoms include a rash that resembles a bullseye. Photo by CNX OpenStax, license CC 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

It’s not certain whether the defense authorization bill will end up on President Donald Trump’s desk with this weaponized ticks measure included. Right now, the Senate has passed a version of the bill without the measure attached, which means the House and Senate will need to reconsider the two bills.

While there’s controversy over whether the Pentagon did this, Lyme disease itself is thriving thanks to climate change. Places that are usually too cold for these little arachnids (no, ticks aren’t insects) are becoming nice, cozy homes for them. So it’s actually good news that Congress is looking into this debilitating disease.

Let’s hope this measure passes. Because defeating Lyme disease is definitely a worthwhile cause.

Featured image by Jim Gathany/CDC, license: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons 

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