Is Lyme Disease the Result of a Biological Warfare Experiment Gone Wrong? Why Some Say the Government is Responsible for the Lyme Disease Epidemic
If you read the news a couple of days ago, you may have noticed some intriguing headlines. One read, “House of Representatives Orders Pentagon to Investigate Whether Ticks Were Once Used as Biological Weapons,”1 while another read, “Pentagon May Have Released Weaponized Ticks That Helped Spread of Lyme Disease: Investigation Ordered.”2
In the age of clickbait headlines and fake news, you may have thought that you should pass on such articles. After all, what does the government have to do with ticks other than funding research into tick-borne diseases?
Lyme disease and other tick-borne diseases have been gaining more interest in recent years due to the explosion in tick populations, but it’s still rare to see news about ticks going viral. So, is this just another conspiracy theory? Is there any evidence that the U.S. government was involved in starting the Lyme disease epidemic?
Lyme Disease Makes the Headlines
The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), a defense spending bill for the Department of Defense (DoD). It’s typical for lawmakers to propose amendments to the NDAA at the time of reauthorization every term, and this year was no different.
This year, however, there was an unusual amendment offered by New Jersey Rep. Chris Smith. The amendment, passed by the House by a voice vote, would require the Inspector General of the DoD to conduct an investigation into whether the department experimented with ticks for use as biological weapons from 1950 to 1975.
The investigation would task the Investigator to explore questions such as:
- What were the parameters of the bioweapons program?
- Who ordered it?
- Was there ever any accidental release anywhere or at any time of any diseased ticks?
- Were any ticks released by design?
- Did the program contribute to the disease burden?
- Can any of this information help current-day researchers find a way to mitigate these diseases?
Smith said he was “inspired” by “a number of books and articles suggesting that significant research had been done at U.S. government facilities…to turn ticks and other insects into bioweapons.” One book he mentioned on the debate floor was Bitten: The Secret History of Lyme Disease and Biological Weapons by Kris Newby.
Newby, a science writer at Stanford University, was inspired to write the book after she and her husband suffered from Lyme disease that was misdiagnosed for a year. Frustrated by the politics of the current medical system and lack of answers, Newby set out to find the truth. What she found was so troubling that she called it an “American Chernobyl.”
The True Origin of Lyme Disease?
The mainstream story of Lyme disease is that in the 1970s, several children in and around Lyme, Connecticut became afflicted with a mysterious illness that caused a red, expanding bull’s eye rash and flu-like symptoms. Willy Burgdorfer, a Swiss American scientist, was the first to determine that the disease was caused by a corkscrew-shaped bacterium — a spirochete — of the genus Borrelia.3 The spirochete was later named Borrelia burgdorferi after its discoverer.
Like many other bacterial infections, the treatment is a short course (2-4 weeks) of antibiotics. Problem solved — or is it?
The reality is many people — about 20% of cases according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — experience lingering symptoms in what is known as chronic Lyme disease or post-treatment Lyme disease (PTLD). A more recent analysis suggested that PTLD affects 36% to 63% of treated patients.4
Unfortunately, PTLD is poorly understood and treatment is controversial. Many physicians are unwilling to prescribe longer courses of antibiotics due to CDC guidelines despite findings from numerous studies indicating that the current treatment may not sufficiently eliminate B. burgdorferi or its debris. What is more troubling is that in lab tests, B. burgdorferi was shown to tolerate current Lyme antibiotics doxycycline, amoxicillin, and cefuroxime.5,6,7 Furthermore, B. burgdorferi can develop morphological variants, which could play a role in PTLD.8,9
When Newby and her husband started getting sick, they went through a succession of doctors who dismissed their suffering. One diagnosed them with “a psychosomatic couples thing.” The Newbys had to consult an internet chat room to find a Lyme-literate physician, who finally diagnosed them with Lyme disease and a co-infection called babesiosis.
In total, Newby writes that it took them “a year, ten doctors, and sixty thousand dollars in medical expenses” to get real answers. When she was well enough, Newby began researching the disease, which led to a documentary called “Under Our Skin.” She and the co-producer of the documentary, Andy Abrahams Wilson, struggled to get government Lyme experts from the CDC, NIH, Rocky Mountain Labs, etc. They all declined to be interviewed.
Finally, they met Willy Burgdorfer, the scientist who discovered B. burgdorferi.
“A Shameful Affair”
In their interviews, Burgdorfer confirmed that he had worked on tick-borne bioweapons research. Furthermore, he told Newby and Wilson that the U.S. government knows about PTLD and that the disease is particularly damaging to children’s neurological systems.
He then criticized researchers who receive the most NIH funding for Lyme disease. “The controversy in Lyme disease research is a shameful affair,” he said. “Money goes to people who have, for the past thirty years, produced the same thing: nothing.”
After going through much of Burgdorfer’s laboratory records, Newby discovered a reference to a pathogen he called the “Swiss Agent.” Burgdorfer and his colleagues found the microbe on a trip to Switzerland in 1978. The Swiss Agent, now called Rickettsia helvetica, is a bacterium that was initially thought to only affect animals, although it is now known that it can also cause illness in humans.
Burgdorfer returned to the U.S. with the Swiss Agent and started infecting U.S. ticks with it. It was around this time that a mysterious illness was affecting patients in and around Lyme, Connecticut. When Burgdorfer tested the patients’ blood, he reported that most of them showed “very strong reactions” to the Swiss Agent antigen, indicating that the patients had been infected with the Rickettsia bacteria.
But when further studies showed inconsistencies, Burgdorfer doubted that he had found the right pathogen that caused Lyme disease. About 18 months later (June 1982), he published an article in Science, pinning the disease on a new microbe called Borrelia burgdorferi. The Swiss Agent was never mentioned.
Unanswered Questions About Lyme Disease
Willy Burgdorfer passed away in 2014, and despite combing through existing records, Newby has questions that remain unanswered. Is the Swiss Agent what makes Lyme disease so virulent and persistent? Why was it never mentioned in Burgdorfer’s 100+ journal articles? And what happened to his laboratory records on the Swiss Agent? Is there anyone left who can offer clarity on these highly classified documents?
Symptoms of Lyme Disease
While we wait for answers, it’s important to raise awareness of Lyme disease and its symptoms. If you’ve ever been bitten by a tick, you’ve probably been told by a medical professional or another resource that you shouldn’t worry unless you observe the telltale sign of Lyme disease — an expanding rash (often called erythema migrans in medical terms). It can appear as a solid red blotch or as a bull’s eye, which is a central spot surrounded by clear skin that is in turn encircled by an expanding rash.
According to the American Lyme Disease Foundation (ALDF), it is estimated that the rash occurs in about 80% to 90% of all Lyme disease cases. Though this number is also controversial, with some saying that the rash is only present in about 30% of all cases.
Even if we go by the conservative estimate, that means that the rash is not observed in up to 20% of Lyme disease cases.
In such cases, physicians often have a much harder job of diagnosing a patient because Lyme disease is also known as the “great imitator.”10 It can mimic nearly every complex disease known, including those that are multisystemic. Lyme disease has often been misdiagnosed as:
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Multiple sclerosis
- Chronic fatigue syndrome
- Rheumatoid arthritis
This mimicry, in addition to the unreliable diagnostic tests currently available have a compound effect in increasing the difficulty of diagnosing Lyme disease.
Decades of research on the disease have resulted in hundreds of symptoms, including many that were once deemed “rare” or “unusual.” But all of the symptoms come from a similar process, argues Dr. Stephen Buhner in his book Healing Lyme. He writes, “The most important thing to understand about Lyme disease is that the bacteria have an affinity for collagenous tissues. This is at the root of every symptom they cause.”
For example, B. burgdorferi can attach to myelin sheaths that surround your nerve fibers and break them down. The demyelination, Buhner states, is the root cause of most of the neurological symptoms observed in Lyme disease patients.
“Every symptom someone gets comes from a similar process,” Buhner writes. This means that if the collagen structures of the body are protected, the symptom picture should disappear.
So what are some of the other symptoms of Lyme disease? According to the ALDF, Lyme disease occurs in three stages: localized early (acute) stage, early disseminated stage, and late stage. Patients can experience overlapping symptoms and they also may not go through all three.
Localized Early (Acute) Stage
The early stage of Lyme disease occurs within the first few hours to weeks after a tick bite. In addition to the rash, flu-like symptoms are often present, which include:
- Suddenly feeling “under the weather”
- Swollen lymph glands near tick bite
- General muscle pain
Naturally, this stage of Lyme disease is also the easiest to treat because the infection has not yet spread throughout the body.
Early Disseminated Stage
The early disseminated stage of Lyme disease occurs several weeks after the tick bite. The spirochetes have begun to spread throughout the body, which results in:
- Increased severity of flu-like symptoms of the early stage
- Multiple rashes not at the bite site
- Vision changes
- Severe fatigue
- Fever of 100°F to 102°F
- Pain, weakness, or numbness in limbs
- Facial paralysis
- Multiple enlarged lymph glands
- Abnormal pulse
- Sore throat
- Stiff, aching neck
- Short-term memory loss
Even with many of these symptoms, it is possible to test negative for Lyme disease on the standard tests, the enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) and the Western Blot. Both tests measure the level of antibodies to B. burgdorferi, but it can take up to six weeks for the body to produce them at a detectable level. This means that even if you are infected and have all or many of the symptoms listed above, it can be “too early” for you to test positive for Lyme disease.
If left untreated, the symptoms of Lyme disease progress in severity and can become debilitating in many people. At this stage, B. burgdorferi has spread throughout the body, causing symptoms in multiple systems. The symptoms of late-stage Lyme disease include:
- Severe headaches
- Dizziness, vertigo
- Bilateral hearing loss over time
- Cognitive dysfunction
- Sleep disorders (no sleep, always sleep)
- Multiple ischemic strokes
- Respiratory distress syndrome
- Elevated liver enzymes
- Atrioventricular block
- Loss of sense of taste
- Various nephritic syndromes
- Recurrent, spontaneous episodes of loss of consciousness
As previously mentioned, there are hundreds of symptoms that can be attributed to Lyme disease. It’s also possible that just one of these is the only presenting symptom in a Lyme disease patient.
Could the Theory of Weaponized Ticks be True?
The theory of tick weaponization alleges that scientists in U.S. bioweapons programs infected ticks with pathogens during the Cold War and that the arthropods either escaped or were released. Government bioweapons programs aren’t new, and there are records of open-air tests conducted in the 1950s through the 1970s by the U.S. government. In one instance, the U.S. Army released a fungus called Aspergillus fumigatus at the Norfolk Naval Supply Center to see if the mostly African American workforce was more susceptible to infection.1112
At one point during the cold war, the U.S. and the Soviet Union reportedly had enough germ weapons to “kill everyone on earth.”13 And Newby writes in her book that she believes Willy Burgdorfer was one of the scientists tasked with breeding infected ticks that can be used as biological weapons.
While it’s true that Willy Burgdorfer worked with ticks and tick-borne bacteria, it’s important to note that there are major scientific inaccuracies with Newby’s claims. Specifically, her claims appear to be tainted to some degree by confirmation bias. Newby implies that B. burgdorferi was inserted into ticks by humans for the purpose of weaponizing them. However, this ignores the fact that the bacteria’s genome was detected in the mummified remains of a Tyrolean Iceman named Őtzi, who is estimated to be 5,300 years old.14 Suggesting that these microbes have long infected humans. There is also evidence that the bacteria was present in preserved ticks dating back to the 18th century.15
It’s clear that B. burgdorferi existed in North America long before the bioweapons programs. In fact, a 2017 report from Yale School of Public Health states that B. burgdorferi “is ancient in North America, [and has been] circulating silently in forests for at least 60,000 years…the ongoing Lyme disease epidemic was not sparked by a recent introduction of the bacterium or an evolutionary change.”16
Still, this does not rule out the possibility that something could have been done to increase the virulence of B. burgdorferi. Yes, Borrelia spirochetes have likely existed for ages. But B. burgdorferi’s ability to hide from the immune system is likely of a recent origin. Also, knowing that many ticks carry more than one pathogen, it’s entirely possible that other bacteria, such as rickettsia, could complicate the diagnosis of and increase the resilience of Lyme disease.
Although I encourage a healthy level of skepticism regarding this theory, Newby’s book and Congressman Smith’s amendment could help raise interest in efforts to find an effective treatment for chronic Lyme disease and stop this epidemic. For far too long, doctors and patients have been trapped by our government’s minimal effort to deal with the crisis, and it’s time to put a stop to it.
If you’ve been bitten by a tick and are experiencing any of the symptoms listed above, I highly recommend consulting a functional medicine practitioner or a Lyme disease specialist to get an accurate diagnosis and begin treatment if necessary.
Now it’s time to hear from you. What are your thoughts on the tick weaponization theory? Have you or a loved one been affected by Lyme disease? If so, were you able to find an effective treatment? How was your life affected by the diagnosis? Share your thoughts in the comments below!