Dengue in Cuba, West Nile in New York:
When Mosquitoes Come Home to Roost
by Mark Sanborne
In previous installments in this series, we discussed the wartime use of infected fleas and lice to spread plague (definitely by Japan in China and maybe by the US in Korea), and the possibility that the pandemic of tick-borne Lyme disease was a result of secret biowar research at Plum Island, NY. But there’s another bug that has vectored its way into the history of biological warfare, and it’s one that almost everyone on the planet is intimately familiar with: the hated mosquito.
The US biowar establishment, it turns out, has long been interested in using the blood-sucking insects as vectors to transmit diseases to designated human populations. A particular favorite is the dime-sized Aedes aegypti mosquito, which has the talent of infecting people with potentially deadly yellow and dengue fevers. In fact, there is unnerving evidence that the US sought to conduct mosquito vector tests on unwitting foreign subjects, and that it may have used the knowledge it gained in such “experiments” to launch a stealthy mass attack on a civilian population, with far-reaching though little-recognized consequences.
A disturbing but fascinating article, “US Attempted to Test Biowarfare in Haryana,” appeared in an Indian newspaper, the Deccan Herald, on Nov. 5, 2002. It is worth quoting in its entirety:
Admission by the United States that it released Aedes aegypti mosquitoes in a Pacific island in 1965 as part of its biological warfare test programme has vindicated the Indian government’s decision to close down a similar US-sponsored mosquito project in India in the early 1970s, scientists say.
Indian scientists who had worked on the project say the latest revelation has convinced them that they were unwittingly helping the US biowarfare research under the cover of a public health programme to control malaria. NP Gupta, former director of the National Institute of Virology, told PTI that the then prime minister Indira Gandhi “acted correctly” and at the right time by ordering closure of the project before the planned massive release of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes in 1975 at Sonepat, Haryana. The Sonepat project aimed at finding out the range and survival of these mosquitoes and how they dispersed and penetrated homes and other places once release from the centre of town.
Three weeks ago, the US Defense Department de-classified documents listing as many as 46 secret biological and chemical weapons tests conducted at the height of the Cold War. In one such trial, codenamed Magic Sword, Aedes aegypti mosquitoes that transmit yellow and dengue fevers were released off the coast of Baker Island [in the Pacific] to obtain information on mosquito biting habits, mosquito trap technology and operational and logistical problems associated with the delivery of mosquitoes to remote sites.
Mr. PK Rajagopalan, a senior medical entomologist who was on the staff, said the Sonepat project had identical aims (as the one conducted in Baker Island) except that that it was planned on a very large scale using hundreds of thousands of mosquitoes reared at a special facility in New Delhi built with funds from the US Public Health Service routed through the World Health Organization (WHO).
Prior to its closure, the US project in India drew media criticism and a parliamentary committee probe was conducted due its preoccupation with the Aedes aegypti species that causes yellow fever, a disease which does not exist in India.
Apparently the U.S interest in development of yellow fever as a biological warfare weapon was sustained even after President Nixon supposedly ended the biological warfare program in 1970, says Gupta. Only this time the trial was conducted outside the United States in a developing country under the umbrella of the WHO, he says. Rajagopalan is also surprised at the different standards employed by the US. Baker Island was unpopulated and remote from the mainland, the trial used informed volunteers and the mosquitoes were eradicated after the trial was over. No such plans existed for the proposed release in Sonepat, whose entire population of half a million was to become unwilling volunteers while the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) was in the dark about the real intention behind the release experiment, said Rajagopalan, who retired from an ICMR institute.
Colathur Golpalan, who was ICMR director general at that time, said the US project was permitted by his predecessor and he was not responsible. “It was I who saw to the closure of the project,” he said in a telephone interview.
Ms. Indira Gandhi stopped the trial and ordered the project closed on the advice of an expert committee despite mild protests from WHO and denial by the US State Department that the project had anything to do with biological warfare. But according to Gupta, the latest revelation that the Baker Island release was indeed a biological warfare experiment vindicates the closure of the US project in India.
Aside from the breathtaking audacity of the US subterfuge, the Sonepat project also provides further evidence for critics who claim that the WHO and other UN and international (as well as domestic) agencies have long been (and still are) stocked with “experts” who cooperate closely with the US military-intelligence complex. Such cozy covert relationships raise the possibility that Washington may have succeeded in hoodwinking other developing countries into actually allowing mosquito vector tests on their territory under the guise of malaria control. Declassified Cold War documents also indicate that US Army biowarriors at Fort Detrick, MD, conducted A. aegypti release experiments at military bases in Florida and Georgia in the late 1950s, and that war planners had determined that mosquito-transmitted yellow fever, a mostly tropical disease, could be a suitable bioweapon to employ in southern parts of the Soviet Union.
But if, as suggested, such vector tests actually did lead to a stealthy mass attack on a civilian population, where might that have occurred? Round up the usual suspect: Yes, Cuba.
CUBA AND DENGUE: MADE IN THE USA?
As noted in Part 2 of this series, from the 1960s onward Cuba appears to have been on the receiving end of an unremitting barrage of biological attacks hatched in the U.S. and carried out by anti-Castro terrorists—and even directly by State Department spray planes flying over Cuban territory. The list of targets is impressive in its Nazi-like thoroughness: sugar, tobacco, pigs, cattle, coffee, citrus, dairy cows, chickens, turkeys, rabbits, beans and other vegetables, bananas, and honey bees, to name more than a few.
Of course, some of the outbreaks may have occurred naturally, and it’s often difficult to conclusively prove one way or the other—that’s one of the great advantages of biowarfare. But many of the incidents involved infections, parasites, and blights never before seen in Cuba, and sometimes were firsts for the Western Hemisphere. And they weren’t all aimed at plants and animals—we also noted the outbreak of hemorrhagic dengue fever in 1981 that infected over 340,000 Cubans and killed 158, most of them children. The vector for the disease: that uncomplaining workhorse, A. aegypti.
“We share the people’s conviction and strongly suspect that the plagues that have been punishing our country, especially the hemorrhagic dengue, could have been introduced into Cuba, into our country, by the CIA,” Fidel Castro declared in a July 26, 1981, speech celebrating the Cuban revolution, during which he dealt at length with the public record of US biowar efforts and attacks. “We urge the United States government to define its policy in this field, to say whether the CIA will or will not be authorized again—or has this already been authorized?—to organize attacks against leaders of the revolution and to use plagues against our plants, our animals, and our people.”
The State Department responded that charges of Washington’s involvement in the dengue outbreak were “totally without foundation… The Cuban revolution is a failure, and it is obviously easier to blame external forces than to admit those failures.” But whatever one may think of the Cuban revolution, the fact remains that the health care system it created prevented the hemorrhagic dengue pandemic from turning into a complete catastrophe, as it likely would have in almost any other Latin American country.
“In 1981, we faced the gravest health situation ever to have confronted our country, with tens of thousands of persons hospitalized, and over 10,000 in shock and bleeding,” a Cuban health official told a Havana trial hearing evidence about the US role in the outbreak, held in July 2003 as part of Cuba’s compensation claim against the United States.
Due to the disease’s high mortality rate, medical authorities expected a minimum of 3,000 fatalities in the first few weeks, yet Cuba’s model response—combined with what one pediatrician called “collective thinking”—kept the death toll remarkably low. (In fact, Cuba’s effective approach to the dengue outbreak was subsequently adopted by the Pan American Health Organization.)
So, aside from means, motive, and opportunity, what else indicates the US may have been behind the outbreak? Let’s start with the fact that it was the first major epidemic of hemorrhagic dengue in the Americas in nearly a century. Then there are the odd particulars: the epidemic began with the discovery of simultaneous clusters of infections in three widely separated parts of Cuba (Cienfuegos, Camaguey, and Havana) that then spread like wildfire, and none of the initial victims had recently been away from home or been in contact with international travelers who might have carried the disease and transmitted it to the local mosquito population.
Oh, and how about a confession? In 1984, Eduardo Arocena, head of the Omega-7 terrorist group, on trial in the US for the murder of a Cuban UN diplomat, affirmed that his group—and he personally—had introduced “germs” into Cuba, including dengue, as part of the US biowar against Castro. (He was convicted of the murder, and revealed as an FBI informant, leading to the collapse of his group.) Previous reports had indicated Cuban terrorists also smuggled the African swine flu virus into the country in the late 1970s, forcing the slaughter of all of the island’s pigs.
Cuban counter-revolutionaries are known for their braggadocio, even in court, and in the case of the 1981 dengue pandemic it’s unclear how they could have smuggled the thousands of pre-infected A. aegypti mosquitoes into Cuba that would have been necessary to spark the outbreak. (How many mosquitoes can be crammed into a large suitcase or packing crate—or even a diplomatic pouch?)
Dengue is an arbovirus (i.e. transmissable only by insects) and cannot be transmitted between humans—each victim requires their own mosquito bite. Though one insect can infect multiple victims, it’s likely that, based on the number of Cuban afflicted, several hundred thousand mosquitoes would have had to be released to achieve the desired effect, putting the scale of the operation suspiciously in line with that of the aborted Sonepat test project. For that reason, it seems more likely that the mosquitoes were somehow dispersed from the air, dropped like covert paratroopers behind enemy lines—and indeed, the locations of the three initial outbreaks were all close by international air corridors.
THE LAW OF UNINTENDED (?) CONSEQUENCES
According to the Centers for Disease Control, dengue (pronounced “DEN-ghee”) “is the most important mosquito-borne viral disease affecting humans; its global distribution is comparable to that of malaria, and an estimated 2.5 billion people live in areas at risk for epidemic transmission.” Tens of millions of people are infected with dengue fever (DF) annually. However, while debilitating and terribly painful (it’s not known as “break-bone fever” for nothing), DF infection is relatively short-lived and fatalities are rare. But each year sees several hundred thousand cases of the more virulent dengue hemorrhagic fever (DHF), leading to tens of thousands of deaths among those who develop the related dengue shock syndrome (DSS)—a mortality rate of about five percent in most of the world, though it can be much higher in more undeveloped areas.
And here’s where it gets even more interesting, and frightening. There are four types of DF (DEN-1, 2, 3, and 4), and getting one type does not give the victim immunity from contracting the other types. In fact, it is known that contracting one version after having earlier been infected with another can make the victim particularly prone to developing the much more dangerous DHF/DSS.
Following World War II, mass spraying of insecticides targeted against A. aegypti succeeded in eliminating most major DF epidemics in the Western Hemisphere, though the spray campaign waned in the 1970s due to environmental concerns. By 1970, only DEN-2 was present in the Americas. Suddenly, in 1977—two years after the Sonepat project was cancelled—DEN-1 appeared in Jamaica (where another U.S. bete noire, the socialist Michael Manley, was in power) and then Cuba, the first major dengue outbreak in the country since 1944. Though it was a milder version that didn’t lead to DHF and caused no deaths, it was widespread and helped lay the epidemiological groundwork for a subsequent hemorrhagic outbreak. (A 1978 serologic survey indicated that 45% of the Cuban population had been infected with DEN-1, whereas before 1977 only 2.6% had antibodies for the virus. That’s quick work.)
Then in 1981, a “new” strain of DEN-2 exploded onto the scene in Cuba, and this one, insidiously piggy-backing on the 1977 pandemic, did lead to a mass hemorrhagic outbreak of DHF and DSS, the first in the hemisphere since the turn of the century. The CDC says the deadly new strain was from Southeast Asia, where the disease is endemic and is the leading cause of hospitalization and death among children. But Cuban and other researchers are more specific: they say it is identical to one known only from a 1944 outbreak in New Guinea. In which case, the odds of such an obscure strain suddenly appearing in multiple places in Cuba by “natural” causes seem slim indeed.
(There were reports that the all of the personnel at the US Navy base at Guantanamo were vaccinated against dengue prior to the 1981 outbreak and thus were not infected. While the medical literature notes that currently there is still no publicly available vaccine against dengue, a Google search also indicates that a modern vaccine was first produced in the late 1970s and early 1980s by the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research and GlaxoSmithKline Biologicals—and the Pentagon has never been shy about giving its troops experimental drugs, as it did with anthrax vaccine in the first Gulf War.)
In the years following 1981, Cuba launched a rigorous program of A. aegypti eradication, vector control, and medical surveillance to keep dengue in check, though there were further smaller outbreaks in Santiago de Cuba in 1997 and Havana in 2001-2 that were contained with limited casualties. (While there is no evidence that the origins of these particular epidemics were suspicious, some have speculated that they may been designed to hurt Cuba’s growing foreign tourism industry.)
Meanwhile, in the years following the 1981 outbreak, the virulent strain of “imported” DEN-2 that caused it proceeded to metastasize rapidly throughout the Caribbean to Mexico and Central and South America. By 2003, 24 countries in the Americas had reported confirmed cases of hemorrhagic dengue where it was previously unknown, and potentially deadly DHF is now endemic in many of these countries. (The U.S. itself gets an estimated 100 imported cases of dengue a year.) If, as the evidence strongly suggests, both the 1977 and 1981 Cuban pandemics were spawned in Washington—or more specifically, Fort Detrick, MD—then the resultant devastating effects on the hemisphere as a whole are staggering to contemplate. It would represent state bioterrorism on an almost unimaginable scale.
Is this an example of the law of unintended consequences? One can only hope they were unintended, though it’s hard to see how they could not have been foreseen. Evidently, for those in a position to know, the “gain” was deemed to be worth the risk.
THE ARRIVAL OF WEST NILE
Which leads us to our last stop on Bionia’s skeeter hit parade. Remember the West Nile virus, way back in those halcyon pre-9-11 days of 1999? It made a particularly big impression on those of us who live in the New York City metropolitan region, where the disease made its first appearance in the Western Hemisphere in August of that year. Lucky us.
The first case of human infection occurred in Queens on Aug. 2. By the end of the year, there were a total of 62 cases and seven deaths in the region from the mosquito-borne illness, most of them older people with compromised immune systems. More alarming for many was the initial “cure” imposed by the administration of Mayor Rudolf Giuliani: mass spraying of the insecticide malathion, a likely carcinogen. This writer was among the many who had to dodge inside to escape swooping, spraying helicopters in Brooklyn and Queens, while some residents walking the late-night streets of Manhattan were actually hosed in the face with the poison from passing trucks.
West Nile is a member of the genus flavivirus, along with our new friends dengue and yellow fever, though WN is much less of a global health threat. About 80% of those who contract West Nile show no symptoms and are unaware they are infected, while others display mild, flu-like symptoms. In the few worse cases it can lead to deadly encephalitis and meningitis, and in fact its initial appearance was misdiagnosed as St. Louis encephalitis.
Transmitted by mosquitoes and other vectors, particularly birds, WN has since spread quickly across the country, and by 2003, 45 states and the District of Columbia had reported human cases. By 2005, a total of 19,625 cases and 882 deaths were reported by the CDC, considerably less than the annual toll from the common flu. (However, the number of those infected but undiagnosed or without symptoms probably numbers in the hundreds of thousands.) More alarmingly, while direct human-to-human transmission was initially ruled out, in 2002 it was discovered that the virus could be transmitted through donated blood, organ transplants, breast milk, prenatal exposure, and occupational exposure.
Another spooky attribute of WN is its propensity to kill birds, its most common host. An unusual number of dead birds, particularly crows, were evident around the tri-state area for a while before they were connected to the West Nile outbreak. The virus was first discovered in 1937 in Uganda, and the African variety does not affect bird or animal hosts. Other mild outbreaks occurred in Israel in the 1950s the South Africa in the 1970s, but beginning in the mid-1990s a string of more serious epidemics occurred in North Africa, Israel, Italy, Russia, and Romania that included large die-offs of local bird populations. This seems odd, because it’s generally not in the evolutionary interest of a virus to kill off its main host that gets it from place to place.
Was this creepy entourage of dead crows some sort of designer harbinger for the end of the millenium? (Perhaps an engineered Avian flu will be the Antichrist.) Is it evidence, as some observers have suggested, that the virus—which has long been held in government labs here and around the world—was modified genetically as part of some shadowy biowar project?
THE USUAL SUSPECTS
Our last installment dealt at length with the questionable history of the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, located off the North Fork of eastern Long Island, particularly in regard to its possible propagation of tick-borne Lyme disease. Considerable evidence was cited from a 2004 book, Lab 257: The Disturbing Story of the Government’s Secret Plum Island Germ Laboratory, by Michael Carr, who also weighed in on the West Nile question. He wrote that Plum Island researchers were already studying the WN virus at the time of the outbreak (officials deny this), and cites the death of 18 horses in eastern Suffolk County near Plum Island in August 1999 as evidence that the North Fork was the epicenter of the epidemic.
The official story is to blame international air travel, as if that’s something new. It’s suggested that a WN-infected traveler (yet another Patient Zero) from the Middle East arrived in New York and was bitten by a local mosquito or two, who then went on a major feeding binge and spread the disease to both birds and humans far and wide. Or perhaps a few infected mosquitoes somehow hitched a ride to New York on a jet and wreaked havoc when they escaped into the environment. Or maybe an infected bird was imported or somehow made its way across the ocean. But questions of geography persist: How could such sole-source vectors initially manage to infect both horses at one end of Long Island and humans at the other end, in Queens, but very few people in between? (Though later Suffolk County did develop one of highest rates of West Nile, as it did with Lyme disease in the 1970s.) Just as in the case of the simultaneous appearance of dengue in three widely separated parts of Cuba, here is a hint of the hand of man, not nature.
Or maybe it was just an “accident.” If Plum Island (i.e. the US underground biowar complex) was somehow the source of the West Nile outbreak and/or Lyme disease, were the releases somehow inadvertent, or were they in fact something far more sinister—that is, stealthy mass attacks on domestic civilian populations? Again, considering the apparent US role in spreading a deadly version of dengue fever in the Western Hemisphere, it’s hard to give “them” the benefit of the doubt.
In fact, the idea that the arrival of West Nile was a potential bioterrorist event was knocked around quite a bit by media pundits early on in the outbreak, though the short list of official suspects should not surprise anyone. In a recent web search for “West Nile and biological warfare,” these were the first four stories that came up: “West Nile Virus—Is Castro’s Bioterrorism Threat Being Ignored?”; “Castro Weaponizes West Nile Virus”; “Iraq and Cuba – Fitting Pieces in the West Nile Puzzle?”; and “West Nile Virus: Part of Hussein’s Plan—via Cuba?” This US intelligence disinformation campaign, spread by NewsMax and several right-wing Cuban-American web sites, while predictable, is at least as fanciful as a story on the CDC’s web site positing that Alexander the Great may have died of West Nile virus encephalitis.
Some accounts at the time did take note of the embarrassing fact that the CDC had provided samples of West Nile and a host of other potential biowar agents to Saddam Hussein’s then-friendly regime in the mid-1980s. While the strain delivered to Iraq was different than the one that turned up in New York, NewsMax declared that “experts have confirmed that Saddam has the ability to mutate viruses and other biological agents.” (Sounds like he’s one of the X-Men.)
But it wasn’t only right-wingers who weighed in on the subject. In the October 11, 1999 edition of The New Yorker, Richard Preston wrote a lengthy story headlined “West Nile Mystery: How Did It Get Here? The CIA Would Like to Know.” It cited the concerns of unnamed intelligence analysts, and referred to an excerpt of a book entitled In the Shadow of Saddam published in the April 6, 1999, Daily Mail, a London tabloid. The author, who called himself Mikhael Ramadan, purported to be have been one of Saddam’s body doubles before he escaped from Iraq, and claimed his boss bragged to him in 1997 that Iraq had developed a strain of WN that was “capable of destroying 97% of all life in an urban environment.”
Preston acknowledged that the claims “sounded crazy,” but went on to suggest that there might be at least a germ of truth behind the story, displaying only slightly more skepticism than the American press later did in the trumpeting of Iraq’s nonexistent WMD threat during the run-up to the 2003 invasion. So here’s a final suggestion for all those official experts out there: Next time an incidence of possible bioterrorism pops up on the media’s radar, try to avoid the usual projection of guilt upon the empire’s victims, and instead take a look in the mirror.
Granma International on Cuban Dengue outbreak
CDC official history of dengue (note: read between the lines)
Medical Service Corp. International hisotry of dengue
“West Nile Mystery,” by Richard Preston, The New Yorker, Oct. 18 & 25, 1999
CDC on Alexander the Great and West Nile Virus
From our weblog:
“Desert Storm vets demand Rumsfeld resignation,” Oct. 21, 2002
“Is Baghdad next?” Oct. 20, 2001
“Bionoia,” Pt. 3, WW4 REPORT #121
Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, July 1, 2006
Reprinting permissible with attribution