BY KRIS NEWBY
HARPER WAVE, 2019
336 PP.; $28.99
Bitten: The Secret History of Lyme Disease and Biological Weapons by Kris Newby adds significantly to our understanding of Lyme disease, while oddly seeming to avoid mention of what we already knew.
Newby claims that if a scientist named Willy Burgdorfer had not made a confession in 2013, the secret that Lyme disease came from a biological weapons program would have died with him. Yet, in 2004 Michael Christopher Carroll published a book called Lab 257: The Disturbing Story of the Government’s Secret Germ Laboratory. He appeared on several television shows to discuss the book, including on NBC’s Today Show, where the book was made a Today Show Book Club selection. Lab 257 hit the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list soon after its publication.
Newby’s book reaches the same conclusion as Carroll’s, namely that the most likely source of diseased ticks is Plum Island, New York. Newby reaches this conclusion on page 224 after mentioning Plum Island only once in passing in a list of facilities on page forty-seven and otherwise avoiding it throughout the book. This is bizarre, because Newby’s book otherwise goes into great depth and even chronicles extensive research efforts that led largely to dead ends, because there is information available about Plum Island, and because Carroll’s bestselling book seems to demand comment—supportive, dismissive, or otherwise.
In fact, despite the avoidance of any discussion of Plum Island, I think Newby’s research complements Carroll’s quite well, strengthens the same general conclusion, and then adds significant new understanding. So, let’s look at what Carroll told us, and then at what Newby adds.
Less than two miles off the east end of Long Island sits Plum Island, where the US government makes or at least made biological weapons, including weapons consisting of diseased insects that could be dropped from airplanes on a (presumably foreign) population. One such insect is the deer tick, pursued as a germ weapon by the Nazis, the Japanese, the Soviets, and the Americans.
Deer swim to Plum Island. Birds fly to Plum Island. The island lies in the middle of the Atlantic migration route for numerous species. “Ticks,” Carroll writes, “find baby chicks irresistible.”
In July of 1975 a new or very rare disease appeared in Old Lyme, Connecticut, just north of Plum Island. And what was on Plum Island? A germ warfare lab to which the US government had brought former Nazi germ warfare scientists in the 1940s to work on the same malevolent operation for a different employer. These included the head of the Nazi germ warfare program who had worked directly for Heinrich Himmler. On Plum Island was a germ warfare lab that frequently conducted its experiments out of doors. After all, it was on an island. What could go wrong? Documents record outdoor experiments with diseased ticks in the 1950s (when we know that the United States was using such weaponized life forms in North Korea). Even Plum Island’s indoors, where participants admit to experiments with ticks, wasn’t sealed tight. And test animals mingled with wild deer, test birds with wild birds.
By the 1990s, the eastern end of Long Island had by far the greatest concentration of Lyme disease. If you drew a circle around the area of the world heavily impacted by Lyme disease, which happened to be in the Northeast United States, the center of that circle was Plum Island.
Plum Island experimented with the Lone Star tick, whose habitat at the time was confined to Texas. Yet it showed up in New York and Connecticut, infecting people with Lyme disease—and killing them. The Lone Star tick is now endemic in New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey.
If Newby agrees or disagrees with any of the above, she does not inform us in her book. But here’s what she adds to the story: the outbreak of unusual tick-borne disease around Long Island Sound actually started in 1968, and it involved three diseases: Lyme arthritis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and babesiosis. A US bioweapons scientist, Willy Burgdorfer, credited in 1982 with discovering the cause of Lyme disease, may have put the diseases into ticks thirty years earlier. And his report on the cause of Lyme disease may have involved a significant omission that has made it harder to diagnose or cure. The public focus on only one of the three diseases has allowed a disaster that could have been contained to become widespread.
Newby documents in detail Burgdorfer’s work for the US government—giving diseases to ticks in large quantities to be used as weapons, as they did in Cuba in 1962, for example. “He was growing microbes inside ticks, having the ticks feed on animals, and then harvesting the microbes from the animals that exhibited the level of illness the military had requested,” Newby writes.
Burgdorfer published a paper in 1952 about the intentional infecting of ticks. In 2013 filmmaker Tim Grey asked him, on camera, whether the pathogen he had identified in 1982 as the cause of Lyme disease was the same one or similar or a generational mutation of the one he’d written about in 1952. Burgdorfer replied in the affirmative. Interviewed by Newby, Burgdorfer (who died in November 2014) described his efforts to create an illness that would be difficult to test for—knowledge of which he might have shared earlier with beneficial results for those suffering.
Newby, who has herself suffered from Lyme disease, blames the profit interests of companies and the corruption of government for the poor handling of Lyme disease. But her writing suggests to me a possibility she doesn’t raise, namely that those who know where Lyme disease came from have avoided properly addressing it because of where it came from.
Newby assumes throughout the book that there has to have been a particular major incident near Long Island Sound, either an accident or an experiment on the public or an attack by a foreign nation. Burgdorfer reportedly claimed to another researcher that Russia stole US bioweapons. Based on that and nothing else, Newby speculates that perhaps Russia attacked the United States with diseased ticks, coincidentally right in the location where the US government experimented with diseased ticks.
“What this book brings to light,” Newby writes,
is that the US military has conducted thousands of experiments exploring the use of ticks and tick-borne diseases as biological weapons, and in some cases, these agents escaped into the environment. The government needs to declassify the details of these open-air bioweapons tests so that we can begin to repair the damage these pathogens are inflicting on humans and animals in the ecosystem.
Another product of US bioweapons tax dollars at work, of course, was the anthrax mailed to politicians in 2001. While Newby speculates that perhaps someone was trying to demonstrate the danger for our own good, I don’t think we should forget that one purpose served by the “anthrax attacks”—whether or not intended—was a significant augmentation of the Iraq war lies. The attacks were falsely blamed on Iraq, and even if people have forgotten that, they fell for it long enough for it to matter. The one bit of truth in current public understanding of Lyme disease is that it hasn’t been falsely blamed on some country the US is eager to bomb. Let’s keep it that way.