Did The US Military Release Weaponized Ticks?

Ticking time bomb: the origins of Lyme disease have long been uncertain. Bork/Shutterstock

Was the spread of Lyme disease the result of a military experiment gone wrong? It might sound like a batshit conspiracy theory, but this question is now the subject of an investigation issued by the US House of Representatives.

The inquiry was quietly issued in an amendment proposed last week by a Republican congressman from New Jersey, Chris Smith, as part of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act. The report will look to investigate whether the Pentagon experimented with tick-borne Lyme disease as a biological weapon during the Cold War and if any weaponized ticks were let loose on the public either “by accident or experiment design.”

Smith was inspired to write the amendment after reading Bitten: The Secret History of Lyme Disease and Biological Weaponsa new book by Kris Newby that casts a deeply cynical gaze on the work of Dr Willy Burgdorfer, the Swiss-born US scientist who is credited with the discovery of Lyme disease in 1981. Along with his famed scientific work on bacteria and parasites, there is evidence that suggests Burgdorfer became involved with something altogether more sinister. 

Until President Nixon banned government research into biological weapons in 1969, the Cold War was a time when the US was heavily invested in researching biological warfare agents. In a number of interviews and comments made towards the end of his life, Burgdorfer indicated that he was involved in bioweapons research for the US military at Fort Detrick in Maryland. While the specifics remain hazy, he reportedly confirmed that he had been working on tick-borne bioweapons research. 

Lyme disease is caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi and is transmitted to humans through the bite of infected ticks. David Gregory & Debbie Marshall/Wellcome Collection/CC BY

According to the book, there were even plans to drop “weaponized” ticks from airplanes onto residential areas in order to study how the tiny arachnids and pathogens spread across a population. 

The official story says that Lyme disease was only formally identified after a group of people fell sick with an unusual illness around the town of Lyme, Connecticut. Although there is loose evidence to suggest the disease has existed for centuries, its origin has long been shrouded in mystery. Even today, people with Lyme disease frequently report that it can be extremely tricky to receive a proper diagnosis and prompt treatment.

Lyme disease has gone on to become the most common tick-borne disease in the US, infecting over 300,000 people across every state except Hawaii. The disease is an especially grueling one. It often starts with symptoms such as a fever, headache, fatigue, and a characteristic skin rash, however, it can go on to develop into a chronic condition, in which the infection spreads to joints, the heart, and the nervous system.

“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,” Smith told the House

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