The Mystery of Plum Island: Nazis, Ticks and Weapons of Mass Infection
by Mark Sanborne
In Part 2 of this series, which ran in our February issue, journalist and researcher Mark Sanborne looked back at how the US, which now hypes the threat of “bio-terrorism” to justify gutting the Biological Weapons Convention, has actually spearheaded the development of biological weapons—and their use against civilian populations. In this new installment, Sanborne explores the possibility that unusual outbreaks of exotic diseases within the United States have been linked to the Pentagon’s bio-warfare experiments—including some overseen by former Nazis. The closing installments will explore the survival of the secretive Cold War biowar apparatus in both the US and Russia, and its links to the new wave of biological threats.
If covert elements of the U.S. government have indeed been bombarding Cuba for over four decades with diseases aimed primarily at animals and crops, as discussed in Part 2 of this series, where might such bioagents have been developed? One likely suspect is Plum Island, the site where, during the early years of the Cold War, germs and viruses that could be used to wipe out Soviet livestock were cultivated.
Located less than two miles off the North Fork of Long Island and only six miles from Connecticut, the 840-acre Plum Island Animal Disease Center was established after World War II. Initially run by the Army, the facility was put under nominal control of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in the 1950s.
The PIADC was dubbed “the safest lab in the world” and tasked with studying diseases that could threaten the nation’s livestock—which it did, effectively. But from the beginning Plum Island also played a key role in the U.S. biowarfare program and shared close ties with Fort Detrick, MD, the Army’s biowar HQ.
This long-suspected nexus was confirmed in Cold War records declassified in 1993. According to the documents, when calling for a major biowarfare test in the early 1950s, the Joint Chiefs of Staff stated: “Steps should be taken to make certain adequate facilities are available, including those at Fort Detrick, Dugway Proving Ground [Utah], Fort Terry [Plum Island] and an island testing area.” (“Plum Island’s shadowy past: Once-secret documents reveal lab’s mission was germ warfare,” Newsday, Nov. 21, 1993.)
“In many cases there were only maybe five people who knew what was going on in weapons research [at Plum Island]. People in one lab didn’t know what happened in the next lab, and they didn’t ask,” said Norman Covert, the aptly named base historian at Fort Detrick.
AGAIN WITH THE NAZIS?
And just to make it officially nefarious: it turns out Plum Island has Nazi connections. Former U.S. Justice Department prosecutor and Nazi-hunter John Loftus wrote his 1982 book The Belarus Secret: “Even more disturbing are the records of the Nazi germ warfare scientists who came to America. They experimented with poison ticks dropped from planes to spread rare diseases. I have received some information suggesting that the U.S. tested some of these poison ticks on the Plum Island artillery range off the coast of Connecticut during the early 1950s… Most of the germ warfare records have been shredded, but there is a top secret U.S. document confirming that ‘clandestine attacks on crops and animals’ took place at this time.”
More recently, other details emerged in Lab 257: The Disturbing Story of the Government’s Secret Plum Island Germ Laboratory by Long Island lawyer Michael Christopher Carroll, who spent six years researching the topic. His explosive book actually prompted a lengthy article in the New York Times (“Heaping More Dirt on Plum Island,” Feb. 15, 2004). Though meant as a debunking—aside from Carroll, all seven people interviewed were critics or skeptics—in the Times’ perverse tradition, a lot of interesting information was revealed to its mainstream readers. But not all of the establishment took the party line: Former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo endorsed the book as “brilliant” and a “carefully researched, chilling expose of potential catastrophe.”
Most of the controversy centered around Carroll’s informed speculation that Plum Island may have been the source of a series of epidemics over the decades: outbreaks of Dutch duck plague that almost wiped out Long Island’s duck industry in the 1960s, the insidious appearance and spread of Lyme disease in the 1970s and 1980s, a mystery infection that killed most of the Long Island Sound’s lobsters in 1999, and in the same year the arrival of West Nile virus in the New York metropolitan area, which claimed a number of lives and prompted authorities to repeatedly spray the city with malathion. Allaying potential public fears over such verboten ideas was a main reason the Times devoted so many inches of newsprint to damage control; the article mentioned the Nazi angle only in passing.
It turns out that the spiritual godfather of Plum Island was one Dr. Erich Traub, a Nazi scientist with a fascinating history, according to Carroll’s well-documented account. He spent the pre-war years in a scientific fellowship at the Rockefeller Institute in Princeton, N.J., studying bacteriology and virology, while still finding time to hang out at Camp Sigfried, headquarters of the American Nazi movement in Yaphank, Long Island, 30 miles west of Plum Island. He then took his laboratory skills back to Germany where he eventually became chief of Insel Riems, the Nazi’s secret biological warfare lab located on an island in the Baltic, supervising the testing of germ and viral sprays over occupied Russia, targeting cattle and reindeer, while reporting directly to Heinrich Himmler.
After the war Traub worked briefly for the Soviets before escaping into the embrace of Operation Paperclip, Washington’s covert employment program for useful Nazi scientists. As Werner von Braun was to rockets, Traub was to germs: He promptly went to work for the Naval Medical Research Institute and gave operational advice to the CIA and the biowarriors at Fort Detrick. Indeed, his detailed description of his work at Insel Riems probably helped inspire the selection of Plum Island by the Army: both the German and U.S. facilities were situated on islands where the prevailing winds blew (mostly) out to sea.
Despite his exceedingly questionable history, Dr. Traub in fact was twice asked to be director of Plum Island, including by the USDA. He declined, but was known to have paid at least several official visits there. He may very well have been one of the Nazi scientists cited by Loftus who supervised the dropping of infected ticks from planes. Which brings us to the question of vectors.
In the context of biowarfare and infectious disease generally, a vector is an organism or agent that carries pathogens from one host to another. To attack an enemy’s agriculture system, such intermediary vectors aren’t always needed: It’s often enough to covertly disperse a pathogen directly on part of a crop and allow the infection to spread from plant to plant, as anti-Castro agents apparently did in Cuba on a number of occasions. (The versatile U.S. attack reportedly has also employed molds, fungi, insect infestations, and other minute pests targeted at specific crops—all of which, of course, had to be grown and tested somewhere first.)
However, it’s not quite so simple to attack animal and human populations, which are not stationary targets. Effective aerial delivery of agents like anthrax or rabbit fever can be affected by wind and weather, and is more likely to be detected as a deliberate attack. (Though if it’s sprayed on an army of protestors on the Washington Mall, a possibility discussed in Part 1 —well, that’s apparently another story.)
On the other hand, employing such vectors as mosquitoes, fleas, lice, and ticks to transmit diseases to targeted populations, while much slower in effect, can spread a greater variety of infections much more widely while maintaining a degree of plausible deniability for the attacker. Thus we should not be surprised that the fruits of Nazi and Imperial Japanese research and development in this ugly field ended up in eager U.S. hands after the war.
RETURN TO CUBA
Which bring us to this: Carroll cites an internal 1978 USDA document titled “African Swine Fever” obtained from an investigation by former Long Island congressman Thomas Downey. It notes that in research at Plum Island 1975 and 1976, “the adult stages of Abylomma americanum and Abylomma cajunense were found to be incapable of harboring and transmitting African swine fever virus.” Translated, that means scientists had tested the Lone Star tick and the Cayenne tick as effective vectors for African swine flu and found them wanting.
A vector is generally thought to be a one-way affair. But while this particular vector test failed, it also seems to point, paradoxically, in two directions at once. One is back, once again, to Cuba. Note that Plum Island’s research on suitable vectors for African swine fever took place midway between unusual outbreaks of that disease in Cuba, in 1971 and 1979-80, as discussed in Part 2. (And recall that its appearance in Cuba was a first in the Western hemisphere.)
Perhaps the U.S. scientists were innocuously testing potential vectors that could spread the exotic flu to America’s pork industry. Or perhaps—considering Plum Island’s longstanding connections to Fort Detrick—the tests were actually designed to find a new vector to transmit the virus once again to Cuba, which coincidentally did suffer another outbreak a few years later. In any event, whatever vector infected Cuba’s pigs with African swine fever in 1971 and 1979, it’s safe to say it wasn’t the Lone Star or Cayenne ticks.
But is that the end of the infected tick story? Unfortunately, no. Because the failed Plum Island vector test also points in another possible direction, right back into the heart of what our political-warrior class now likes to call the Homeland. And rather than riding off ineffectually into the sunset, the Lone Star tick has gone on to a key supporting role in yet another biomystery.
THE PANDEMIC THAT DARE NOT SPEAK ITS NAME
In 1975, a strange disease broke out in Old Lyme, Connecticut, just 10 miles across Long Island Sound from Plum Island. Often initially characterized by a red rash and swollen joints, it afflicted an original cluster of 50 victims, many of them children, who were at first misdiagnosed as having juvenile rheumatoid arthritis.
It turns out that “Lyme disease”—as it came to be called as cases mounted and spread in the years that followed—is a devious, multi-systemic, inflammatory syndrome that mimics other illnesses by encompassing a range of afflictions, including chronic and crippling pain and fatigue that untreated can spread to organs and the central nervous system, causing depression, palsy, memory loss, psychosis, and even encephalitis and death.
Such severe outcomes might surprise many Americans, most of whom have heard of Lyme disease but because of the current lack of media attention probably think it’s no big deal—unless they know someone who suffers from it. Well guess what? With a quarter century behind the outbreak, Lyme is now the most common vector-borne infection in the United States, and the most common tick-born illness in the world. Yes, you heard that right.
After spreading out from “ground zero” in the Long Island Sound area, as of mid-April 2006, a total of 267,779 domestic cases of Lyme in 49 states had been reported to the federal Centers for Disease Control. Some experts estimate that, due to Lyme’s confusing multiple manifestations, at most only one in 10 cases are recognized and reported to the CDC, so that the total number of victims could be more than 2.68 million. On top of that, a study predicts a one-third increase in the number of cases per year in the U.S. over the 10-year period from 2002 to 2012.
A TICK WITH A HISTORY
So what’s going on? Where did this weird bug—which, leaving aside its suspicious proximity to Plum Island, seemed to emerge from nowhere—supposedly come from? Its history is intriguing. In 1982, National Institutes of Health researcher Dr. Willy Burgdorfer isolated and identified spirochetes (a form of bacteria) of the genus Borrelia from the gut of infected Ixodes scapularis (commonly known as deer ticks) as the etiological agent of Lyme disease. It was dubbed Borrelia burgdorferi (Bb), and the good doctor ruefully said of his discovery: “It’s a helluva bug, and I’m sorry my name is on it!”
However, while Burgdorfer was the first to isolate the insidious spirochete (which animal studies suggest in some cases can worm its way deep inside tendons, muscle, the heart and the brain inside a week), earlier incarnations of the disease had been studied in Europe since the late 19th century. By the 1930s, it was known to cause neurological and psychiatric problems and the tiny Ixodes tick was suggested as a vector. By mid-century doctors were using new antibiotic treatments with some success.
But while the disease caused by the Bb bacteria was known in Europe, it did not appear to constitute a major health problem. It was even less of an issue on the other side of the Atlantic: Although Bb and related bacterial strains are thought to have long been present in North America, the only official case reported in the U.S. before the Connecticut outbreak occurred in Wisconsin in 1970, when a hunter became infected from a tick bite.
So what changed in the 1970s to kick-start what has since become a pandemic, both here and in Europe? (Though the P-word is never used in reference to Lyme, as opposed to bird flu, which is still only a potential pandemic.) Or are we to believe that Bb has been infecting people all along but somehow it just wasn’t being noticed? A similar argument has been advanced by apologists for the medical-industrial complex who maintain that the recent explosion of autism was simply the result of better detection and recognition of the condition, rather than being largely caused by mercury-laced vaccines, as many now suspect.
Dr. Alan G. Barbour, who worked closely with Burgdorfer in the identification of Bb, co-wrote an article with Durland Fish in 1993 that made an interesting case for how the modern outbreak of Lyme disease may have occurred. They suggested that Bb infections were a fact of life in early American history that went largely unnoticed amid the harshness of frontier life:
“The generally benign nature [!] of acute B. burgdorferi infection relative to the debilitating and fatal effects of diseases plaguing North Americans through the 19th century may have contributed to its obscurity until a cluster of cases of childhood arthritis first brought it to wider attention on this continent. The ecological changes in the northeastern and midwestern United States during this century are responsible for the recent emergence of Lyme disease as a public health problem.”
They argue that mass deforestation of the Northeast due to the clearing of land for agriculture and settlement in the 19th and early 20th century resulted in a collapse of white-tailed deer populations, the primary carriers of the I. scapularis tick, and hence the tick itself became too scarce to infect people with Bb. The authors further theorize that Long Island served as a refuge for relict populations of deer in the area. Then, as land-use patterns changed in the latter half of the 20th century, woodlands and forests recovered in the Northeast, along with deer and deer ticks:
“The invasion by I. scapularis of the increasingly reforested mainland from island refuges initiated the current epidemic of Lyme disease in the Northeast … There is evidence that several independent mainland invasions [mainly from Long Island] by I. scapularis took place, resulting in early Lyme disease foci in central New Jersey, mainland Westchester County, N.Y., southeastern Connecticut, and eastern Massachusetts.”
So science seems clear on the fact that Long Island was the source of the modern outbreak of Lyme disease, but the devil is in the details. The key problem with Barbour and Fish’s scenario is that it treats pre-1975 Long Island like some kind of lost world, an offshore wilderness Eden where remnant deer lived free of human interaction. In fact, the island’s deer population, concentrated in eastern Suffolk County, has long lived close by people, many of whom were certainly exposed to deer tick bites over the years. So why were there no reports of the disease on Long Island in the decades before the outbreak in Connecticut? And why, in the wake of that outbreak across the Sound, did Suffolk County—home of Plum Island—quickly develop one of the highest rates of Lyme disease in the country?
This writer grew up in western Suffolk County in the 1960s and ’70s, and spent plenty of time exploring the woods, and was bitten by plenty of ticks. But they were the types of tick you can easily see and feel crawling on your skin, and thus usually could be picked off before they began engorging themselves in earnest on one’s blood. Fortunately, there were no deer or deer ticks in my neck of the woods. So it came as quite a shock to learn in the late ’70s of the sudden existence, just a few dozen miles to the east, of infected ticks that were almost invisible—literally the size of a pinhead—and had the ability to make an unlucky hiker’s life into a living hell. Our tiny friend I. Scapularis is indeed the perfect covert agent: it does its dirty work quickly and disappears before you know it’s there, usually leaving behind a telltale rash and a very questionable prognosis.
WOUND, DON’T KILL
Okay, enough beating around the real and metaphorical bushes. Is there any actual evidence that Lyme disease could be the outcome of biological warfare research at Plum Island that, either accidentally or otherwise, escaped into the outside world? In fact, the evidence seems quite suggestive, especially when compared to the shaky logic of the official story.
Some might ask: Why would biowarriors be interested in studying a disease agent like Borrelia burgdorferi that incapacitates but rarely kills its victims? Actually, for all the attention focused on deadly pathogens like anthrax, plague, and rabbit fever, the biowar establishments of various powers have also long been interested in agents that can slowly stricken and debilitate a civilian population.
The logic is brutally simple: just as a wounded soldier puts more logistical strain on an army than a dead one does, gradually sickening a population places greater economic and social stress on a society than simply killing a limited number of people with a more direct and virulent attack. If the disease agent can be transmitted via a “natural” vector like ticks or mosquitoes, providing plausible deniability, and can confuse medical authorities by presenting a broad array of symptoms that mimic other conditions (Bb, like its more famous relative syphilis, has been called the “Great Imitator”), then so much the better.
Imperial Japan’s infamous Unit 731 biowar outfit, discussed in Part 2, reportedly conducted experiments with the Borelia genus, the results of which likely fell into U.S. hands after the war. However, there is no documentary evidence that indicates Plum Island researchers ever worked with Bb —after all, it is primarily a disease of humans, not animals. On the other hand, if the bacteria were being secretly studied (or worse, “weaponized”) at the lab and introduced to ticks for vector tests, there are any number of ways tick-borne Bb could have escaped to the mainland: from deer—which are able to swim to and from the island—to birds, or even an inadvertently infected lab worker. (Assuming, of course, it wasn’t released on purpose as part of some sinister test.)
Since the Lyme outbreak, scientists claim to have documented the presence of Bb in I. scapularis museum specimens collected in the late 1940s from Shelter Island and other parts of Long Island close by Plum Island. This is presumed to be evidence that the spirochete was pre-existing in the area and was not “engineered” in a lab in the 1970s. But note that the period the tick specimens were collected is suspiciously close to the time when Nazi scientists may have “experimented with poison ticks dropped from planes to spread rare diseases” at Plum Island.
GIVING NATURE A HAND
The question then arises: Are the unusual characteristics of Bb solely the result of natural evolutionary processes, or were they helped along by the hand of man? Speaking more generally, here’s what Col. Oliver Fellowes, a founding father of Plum Island who was transferred from Fort Detrick in 1952, had to say: “We were always looking for a way to camouflage a strain so that it would be so difficult to detect and identify that, by the time the enemy had done so, the disease would have done the damage.” (Unit 731 by Peter Williams and David Wallace, Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1989.)
Wait, it gets better. On July 1, 1969, Dr. Donald MacArthur, director of the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, testified before a subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee. He had this exchange with Rep. Robert Sikes of Florida:
DR. MACARTHUR: There are two things about the biological agent field I would like to mention. One is the possibility of technology surprise. Molecular biology is a field that is advancing very rapidly and eminent biologists believe that within a period of five to 10 years it would be possible to produce a synthetic biological agent, an agent that does not naturally exist and for which no natural immunity could have been acquired.
REP. SIKES: Are we doing any work in that field?
DR. MACARTHUR: We are not.
REP. SIKES: Why not? Lack of money or lack of interest?
DR. MACARTHUR: Certainly not lack of interest.
MacArthur’s chilling testimony can be seen as the Rosetta Stone of bionoia, and will be discussed in greater detail in a later installment. But we don’t need it for confirmation that something like Lyme disease can be considered a biological warfare agent—we have it straight from the source, namely the U.S. government. On Nov. 15, 2005, the Associated Press reported:
“A new research lab for bioterrorism opened Monday at the University of Texas at San Antonio. The $10.6 million Margaret Batts Tobin Laboratory Building will provide a 22,000-square-foot facility to study such diseases as anthrax, tularemia, cholera, lyme disease, desert valley fever and other parasitic and fungal diseases. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified these diseases as potential bioterrorism agents.”
That, it would seem, makes it official. Among those who took note of this matter-of-fact admission was Dr. Virginia Sherr, who, in a letter to the editor published Nov. 22, 2005 in the online edition of the Lancet medical journal, wrote:
“[The] concern is the overriding significance of an invisibilized but nonetheless serious infection caused by an extraordinarily complex neurotropic spirochete. Its pandemic is approaching severity that was experienced throughout the world in the Spanish Flu of 1918. The causative spirochete is, of course, less immediately fatal than was the virus of that epidemic, but it is deadly, nonetheless, to the human brain. The fact that the causative spirochete, B. burgdorferi, is being studied as an agent of biowarfare in the USA adds impetus to a need for quick education of most of the world’s academic physicians as to what has been sensed at the clinical level for a long time: we are dealing here with a formidable ‘smart stealth’ type of bacteria that is hard to eradicate—one that does extreme damage to psyche and soma if not treated aggressively over the long term when missed in the first days following inoculation by the vector… Organized Medicine has mostly ignored or deserted the field of neuro-Lyme’s currently immense proportions, internationally.”
THE REVENGE OF TEXAS
Whither Plum Island? According an Aug. 28, 2005, story in Newsday, “Plum Island’s Future Up In The Air,” the federal government plans to replace the existing facility on the island with a more secure one or relocate to a higher-security level research lab elsewhere by 2011. “The Plum Island facility was built in the 1950s and is nearing the end of its life cycle,” according to the Deptartment of Homeland Security. Glad to hear those guys are on the case.
Ah, but what about the Lone Star tick and its failed vector test back in 1975? Aside from that curious coincidence with Cuba, the documented research also appears to have something to say about events much closer to home. It demonstrates that Plum Island researchers were infecting Abylomma americanum with various bioagents to see if they could be successfully vectored to other species. (In this case pigs, but swine are often used as stand-ins for humans in medical experiments.)
That is a matter of some interest because, while the I. Scapularis deer tick is the major vector for Lyme disease in the Northeast, the Lone Star tick has also been found to be a carrier of spirochetes. There is some debate about whether A. americanum can transmit Bb to humans. Researchers say the tick carries a slightly different bacteria that they’ve dubbed Borrelia lonestari, which may or may not cause a “new” Lyme-related ailment called Masters disease, identified in 1991 in Missouri.
The fact that two different ticks carry their own versions of an unusual spirochete bio-agent is suspicious enough—designer bugs, perhaps? (Check out this unintentional smoking gun in Barbour and Fish’s article: “The presence of spirochetes similar to B. burgdorferi in A. americanum in areas where competent vectors are absent is inexplicable.”) But here’s the real kicker: The Lone Star is a warm-weather tick that is prevalent in the Southeast and until recently was mostly unknown in the colder Northeast. Now it has reached as far north as—you guessed it—Long Island, New Jersey, and Connecticut. (Though perhaps the word should not be “reached” but “released.”)
A. americanum now makes up 5% of the overall tick population in the region, though there are greater concentrations in some areas than others. (Researchers combing the woods in New Jersey have found 2,000 to 3,000 Lone Star ticks within one hour.) When did these little devils start being noticed up here in large numbers? Yup: In the wake of the outbreak of Lyme disease—though there are reports that the initial invaders may have “arrived” as far back as the 1950s, just as things were getting underway at Plum Island.
And yes, Abylomma americanum, as it’s nickname suggests, has a special association with the Lone Star State. Another import from Texas that the rest of the country probably could have done without.
Lyme Disease Foundation
“The Biological and Social Phenomenon of Lyme Disease,” Barbour and Fish, Association for the Advancement of Science, June 1993
Dr. Donald MacArthur, Congressional testimony, July 1, 1969
“Bionoia,” Pt. 2, WW4 REPORT #118
Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, May 1, 2006
Reprinting permissible with attribution