Suffolk Closeup: How did Lyme Disease start?

The U.S. House of Representatives has just passed a measure calling for a federal investigation into any link between the “possible weaponization of ticks” by the U.S. military and Lyme disease.

Several books and articles have found that there is such a link and have pointed to activities on Plum Island, a mile-and-a-half off Orient Point and northeast of Shelter Island. Lyme disease is named for Old Lyme, Connecticut, 10 miles from Plum Island, where it was first identified.

The sponsor of the measure is Representative Chris Smith, a Republican in his 21st term in the House and considered the dean of the New Jersey delegation in the House. Lyme disease has long been a focus; he is co-chair of the bipartisan Congressional Lyme Disease Caucus.

His bill, in the form of an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, was part of a package of amendments to the annual National Defense Authorization Act which passed the House by a vote of 360 to 66 on September 23. It has been sent to the U.S. Senate for its consideration.

This is the third year in a row such a measure introduced by Mr. Smith has passed in the House. But neither, in 2019 and 2020, received Senate approval. 

“Americans deserve the Truth: Did DOD Weaponize Ticks with Lyme Disease?” was the headline on September 22 in the Congressional Record as the Smith measure came before the House. The Congressional Record is the official account published by Congress of its proceedings.

The piece started with comments made by Mr. Smith: “Mr. Speaker, in the spirit of transparency and accountability my amendment directs the General Accountability Office, GAO, to probe whether the Department of Defense ever weaponized ticks with Lyme disease or any other dangerous pathogen.”

“For years,” it went on, “books and articles have been written credibly asserting that significant research at Fort Detrick,” an Army facility in Maryland, long headquarters for U.S. biological warfare activities, and “Plum Island, and elsewhere, was conducted to turn ticks into bioweapons.”

Mr. Smith cited a 2019 book, Bitten: The Secret History of Lyme Disease and Biological Weapons by Stanford University science writer Kris Newby. The book “includes interviews with Dr. Willy Burgdorfer, the researcher who is credited with discovering Lyme disease,” he says. “It turns out that Dr. Burgdorfer was a bioweapons specialist. The interviews, combined with access to Dr. Burgdorfer’s file, reveal that he and other bioweapons specialists stuffed ticks with pathogens in a quest to cause severe disability, disease and death.”

“If the investigation concludes our government’s bioweapons program did not contribute to the proliferation of Lyme, we turn the page,” Mr. Smith’s speech concluded. “And if it did, hopefully this investigation and research will contribute to a cure.”

A 1982 book linking Plum Island to experiments with ticks and Lyme disease was The Belarus Secret: The Nazi Connection in America by John Loftus, an attorney who specialized in pursuing Nazis for the Office of Special Investigations of the U.S. Department of Justice. 

A 2004 book about the Plum Island Animal Disease Center — which became a national best-seller — Lab 257: The Disturbing Story of the Government’s Secret Germ Laboratory, was authored by Michael Carroll, also an attorney, and made a similar connection. 

In 1993, Newsday ran an extensive article by investigative reporter John McDonald saying documents it obtained through the U.S. Freedom of Information Act declared the mission of the laboratory originally set up by the Army on Plum Island was to work on biological warfare to be directed against animals. The Newsday story began: “A 1950s military plan to cripple the Soviet economy by killing horses, cattle and swine called for making biological warfare weapons out of exotic animal diseases at a Plum Island laboratory, now-declassified Army records reveal.”

In 1995, then U.S. Representative Michael Forbes of Quogue, whose district included Shelter Island and took in Plum Island, made a surprise visit to the Plum Island Animal Disease Center to demand all records on experiments with ticks. He was accompanied by Mr. McDonald and me. Mr. Forbes represented Suffolk’s lst Congressional District. (He was a Republican later to switch to the Democratic Party.) The center’s then director, Dr. Harley Moon, under intensive questioning by Mr. Forbes, said that “we don’t have any paperwork on that.” Back in Washington, Mr. Forbes continued his pursuit but without success.

There’s the question of whether COVID-19 might have started at a laboratory in China. And for decades there’s the issue of how Lyme disease began. Both cry out for vigorous and full investigations.