Troublesome Ticks: Dispelling Bioweapon Rumors
Saskia v. Popescu
Saskia v. Popescu, PhD, MPH, MA, CIC, is a hospital epidemiologist and infection preventionist. During her work as an infection preventionist, she performed surveillance for infectious diseases, preparedness, and Ebola-response practices. She holds a doctorate in Biodefense from George Mason University where her research focuses on the role of infection prevention in facilitating global health security efforts. She is certified in Infection Control and has worked in both pediatric and adult acute care facilities.
We're separating fact from fiction regarding the investigation into these concerns.
A government-owned island used for biodefense testing, a devastating vector-borne disease, and an amendment quietly slipped into major legislation—Although these might sound like scenes from the latest sci-fi movie, they are actually part of a current hot topic that stemmed from some rather poor information. Let’s start from the beginning as we tackle the misinformation circulating in today’s anti-vaccine movement.
Plum Island, as idyllic as it sounds, is an island off the coast of Orient Point, New York. Purchased by the US government in the 1950s, it became the home for animal disease research, first for the US Army and then for the US Department of Agriculture. The island is now the site of the Plum Island Animal Disease Center (PIADC), which falls under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Office of National Laboratories (ONL).
The island allows PIADC to maintain a safe, isolated area to develop biodefense efforts to defend against intentional, accidental, or natural animal diseases like foot-and-mouth (FMD), which can be devastating to cattle. Hundreds of investigators and employees come to the island to work on research, which can include efforts of treatment, diagnostics, vaccines, and bioforensics. Not surprisingly, rumors about the island and its work have swirled for decades. Like all the other biodefense laboratories, it maintains a heavy biosecurity and biosafety culture.
Recently, though, Plum Island has been getting additional attention due to the publication of a book claiming that Lyme disease was either created as a biological weapon, the product of a laboratory accident, or a number of other theories. Last week, the US House of Representatives approved an amendment ordering the US Department of Defense (DoD) to investigate whether it ever performed experiments with ticks and other insects for the development of biological weapons between 1950 and 1975.
As Gregory Koblentz, PhD, professor and director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University pointed out, it is already well-known that the United States explored vector-borne diseases as part of its offensive biological warfare program that ended in 1969. Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) brought forward the amendment, citing “a number of books and articles” suggesting there might be a more sinister link between US research on biological weapons during the Cold War and the disease that began infecting humans along the northeastern seaboard in the 1970s. Although it’s not surprising that there is a strong interest in understanding the origins of a disease that sees roughly 300,000 new cases a year, the desire to compel government investigators to seek evidence supporting a book theorizing this association is quite concerning.
The book that Rep. Smith references is Bitten: The Secret History of Lyme Disease and Biological Weapons, which attempts to link Lyme disease to biological weapons. The author of the book bases her claims on an interview with Willy Burgdorfer, PhD, the researcher who first identified the bacterium, Borrelia burgdorferi, that causes Lyme disease in 1981. Within this interview, she loosely claims that he suggests Lyme disease might have originated as a biological weapon.
Unfortunately, Burgdorfer was interviewed in the last period of his life, while he was suffering from Parkinson’s disease. Although he was a well-respected investigator who had extensive knowledge of Lyme disease and the ticks that transmit the disease, the merit of this interview is highly debatable. The book does not provide any additional solid evidence, or even circumstantial evidence, linking Lyme disease to biological warfare.
Indeed, as Koblentz points out, Bitten does not try to explain how the United States could have studied Borrelia burgdorferi for the purpose of developing a biological weapon since the pathogen was not identified until 1981, 12 years after the program ended. Bitten also completely ignores the fact that genetic testing of Borrelia burgdorferi has demonstrated that Lyme disease has actually been around and circulating in forests in North America for at least 60,000 years.
Secondly, the theories within the book that triggered this investigation have varied from hypothesizing that Lyme disease was accidentally released from a government lab or the result of the intentional testing of biological weapons, to the theory that the agent was stolen from American scientists or the result of a Soviet biological weapons attack. Not one of those notions quite seems to stick, but that doesn’t appear to deter the author.
The issue though, lies more in that it has been widely known that Plum Island has been a source for researching animal diseases, both during the offensive (pre-1969) and defensive periods of American bio-research. There are documented tick colonies within the research labs of Plum Island, just as other vectors were likely a component of the work on animal infectious diseases. But that’s where the truth tends to stop. Security measures are tight and biosafety is taken seriously at the facility. Moreover, one has to question, if building a biological weapon, why would Borrelia burgdorferi be considered an attractive agent given the long incubation period of Lyme disease, the relatively mild symptoms in the majority of cases, and the availability of antibiotics to treat the disease? Especially in light of the agents developed by previous biological warfare programs—such as anthrax, plague, smallpox, tularemia, and Marburg—Lyme disease, in the words of Koblentz, “would be the least attractive type of disease to weaponize.”
Lastly, it’s important to note that the Smith Amendment does not call on investigations into Lyme disease specifically, but rather focuses on whether the DoD conducted any offensive bioweapons work with vectors, such as ticks. Although Koblentz is in favor of the DoD providing a deeper history of its past bioweapon research activities, including that involving ticks and insects, he expressed skepticism that it would shed any additional light on the origins of Lyme disease: “For some reason some people want to blame public health problems they don’t understand on grandiose government conspiracies instead of acknowledging the fact that our society is creating these problems due to urbanization, climate change, and disruption of ecosystems.”
In the pursuit of understanding a complex and often frustrating disease, a book ripe with theories that contradict each other has inspired a quest for truth about experiments that will not ultimately lead to an answer that will remedy the situation. The hysteria and fear-mongering of this book are not only damaging to the legacy of the investigators it cites but does little to help those afflicted by the disease it preys upon. In an era of false information being spread throughout social media, stories like these take time away from public health crises we need to be focusing on, like the Ebola outbreak in the DRC and ongoing measles transmission.