Ticks are vectors for all sorts of nasty germs, notably Lyme disease, the sixth-most commonly reported infectious disease in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Decades after it was first identified, it's still often misdiagnosed. Symptoms include an expanding body rash, joint pains, fatigue, chills and fever. Could the spread of Lyme be attributable to a classified, decades-old bioweapons program — as some people claim — or are ticks just as good for spreading misinformation as they are for germs?
The ticks-as-weapons issue made headlines back in July 2019, thanks to the U.S. House of Representatives' Chris Smith, R-N.J., who introduced legislation directing the Department of Defense to review claims that the Pentagon researched tick-based bioweapons in the mid-20th century. (The amendment passed.) Smith said he was inspired to do this by "a number of books and articles suggesting that significant research had been done at U.S. government facilities including Fort Detrick, Maryland and Plum Island, New York to turn ticks and other insects into bioweapons."
"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 said during a debate on the House floor. "And have these experiments caused Lyme disease and other tick-borne diseases to mutate and to spread?"
Congressman Smith's legislative actions were inspired partly by "Bitten: The Secret History of Lyme Disease and Biological Weapons," a book written by Kris Newby, a Stanford University science writer who also served as a senior producer on a Lyme disease documentary titled "Under Our Skin."
In the book, Newby points out that in 1953, the Biological Warfare Laboratories at Fort Detrick created a program investigating ways to spread anti-personnel agents via arthropods (insects, crustaceans, and arachnids), with the idea that slow-acting agents wouldn't immediately incapacitate soldiers, but rather make the area dangerous for a long period of time.
"The premise of my book is that weaponized ticks full of 'who knows what' were accidentally released in the region of Long Island Sound," says Newby by email. While she notes that she was unable to prove definitively Lyme bacteria was used as a bioweapon, "there are plenty of shocking discoveries and scientific leads to lift the veil on the mysteries surrounding tick diseases and the government's response to them." Her book says that scientist Willy Burgdorfer (who is credited with discovering the pathogen Borrelia burgdorferi that causes Lyme disease) was directly involved in a number of bioweapons programs. But she stops short of saying that his research was necessarily related to a Lyme disease weapon that was accidentally released into the wild.
The Case Against Lyme Disease as a Bioweapon
Given America's ugly history regarding unethical research, it's fair to ask whether Lyme was inadvertently — or purposely — introduced into the general population. After all, the government conducted hundreds of germ warfare tests and unethical experiments on civilians in the mid-20th century.
But most experts say there's nothing to investigate. Philip J. Baker, executive director of the American Lyme Disease Foundation, wrote a lengthy document debunking claims regarding Lyme disease bioweapons research. In it, he established that both Lyme and the ticks that spread it were prevalent in the Northeast thousands of years before Europeans colonized the continent.
"I think it would be a complete waste of the taxpayers' money for Congress to waste its time investigating science fiction," Baker says via email. His article notes that pathogens considered for bioweapons are usually ones that cause death or serious illness in a short period of time after release. That does not describe the Lyme disease pathogen.
Also, the idea that the government tried to weaponize ticks with Lyme in the '50s and '60s doesn't fit the disease timeline. In an article published in The Conversation, Sam Telford, a professor of infectious disease and global health at Tufts University, pointed out that Lyme wasn't even discovered until 1981. That's when Willy Burgdorfer finally pinpointed spiral-shaped bacteria called spirochetes, which were ultimately named as the cause of Lyme.
"The real nail in the coffin for the idea that Lyme disease in the U.S. was somehow accidentally released from military bioweapons research is to be found in the fact that the first American case of Lyme disease turns out not to have been from Old Lyme, Connecticut, in the early 1970s," Telford wrote. "In 1969, a physician identified a case in Spooner, Wisconsin, in a patient who had never traveled out of that area. And Lyme disease was found infecting people in 1978 in northern California. How could an accidental release take place over three distant locations? It couldn't."
Growing deer populations (which spread deer ticks carrying Lyme); reforestation (particularly in the northeastern U.S. where most cases of Lyme are reported); and suburbs encroaching on those forests (which brings humans into close contact with ticks and tick-infested wildlife) are the primary reasons that Lyme is becoming more prevalent — not a top-secret bioweapons program, Telford said.
Provided an organization wanted to weaponize ticks, it's certainly possible. But it's not easy.
"Weaponizing almost any type of biological agent takes a great deal of expertise," says Kerry Clark, a professor of epidemiology and environmental health at the University of North Florida via email. "How much expertise depends on the specific agent, its entire ecology and epidemiology including pathogenic properties, infectivity, pathogenicity, virulence, and in this case, its ability to survive in, and be transmitted, by ticks."
Clark adds that ticks aren't an ideal choice as a biological weapons delivery system. Ticks don't typically thrive in urban environments (where people are concentrated) and they are slow feeders so someone might notice and remove them before they can do their job.
"One would also have to rear and infect large numbers of ticks, and then somehow deliver them to a group of humans in a way that large numbers of people are exposed and actually bitten in a short period of time. Dropping infected ticks from an airplane or drone doesn't sound like an efficient way to incapacitate a population with a bioweapon," he says. Further, "Lyme borreliosis can cause very severe illness in some cases, but may not quickly and efficiently incapacitate victims. Unless the agent was modified significantly from naturally occurring strains, it wouldn't cause high mortality, and might take months to cause serious illness.
"Lastly, we appear to have an epidemic of Lyme-like illness in our country. I believe that a large proportion of these illnesses are caused by infections, and many may result from tick bites. Yet, because of the array of symptoms and difficulty in confirming an exact diagnosis with objective laboratory evidence, I would caution that all the illnesses that resemble Lyme disease may not be specifically caused by Borrelia burgdorferi."
They may be caused by other tickborne pathogens, Clark says. Or by infectious agents encountered in our environment in other ways besides tick bites.
Perhaps the takeaway is that, given the seriousness of tickborne illnesses, the existence — or non-existence — of a murky government conspiracy and cover-up doesn't really matter as much as the fact that patients are still sick and the disease is still spreading. What we really need, says Clark, is, "to invest significant additional funding to investigate the true causes of these illnesses, and to develop better diagnostics and treatments."