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Are Disease-Carrying Insects Escaped Bio-weapons?

The long answer to the theory behind the spread of Lyme disease.

In the news earlier this year, U.S. lawmakers voted to demand that the Pentagon disclose whether it experimented with disease-carrying ticks as bioweapons and if some were released into the wild. This was is in accordance with a bill passed in the House of Representatives demanding answers.

While conspiracy theorists had their day with the bill, there are many facets of the problem to be considered arriving at the truth. Whether these insects are biological weapons or not is not just an ethical or political issue, but the knowledge could be used to treat the diseases they spread.

RELATED: ETHER AND CHLOROFORM WERE THE ANESTHETICS OF THE U.S. CIVIL WAR

What is the basis of these claims?

Infected Ticks Can Carry Lyme Disease
Source: Jerry Kirkhart/Flickr

It all started with a book called ‘Bitten- The Secret History of Lyme Disease and Biological Weapons’ by Kris Newby. The book, apart from being well written, raises some challenging questions for the government and the Department of Defense.

It is further elevated by the increasing occurrences of Lyme disease that these insects are known to spread. It is widely known that these diseases are common in the U.S., with 95% of reported cases originating in the country.

Conspiracy theorists seem convinced that they are a result of experiments conducted at Plum Island. It was a center to study foot-and-mouth disease in cattle opened in an abandoned military base.

There are claims that this base was, in fact, a center for research in bio-weapons by Nazi scientists. Newby supports this claim in her book.

Many citizens who have suffered at the hands of this disease don’t know what to make of this news. As the Lyme Disease Association, President Pat Smith puts it, “We need answers, and we need them now.”

What is biological warfare?

Biological warfare, as the term suggests, is the use of biological agents such as certain bacteria and viruses, also called bio-weapons, that are used to spread disease in the act of war.

While people may doubt their potential as a weapon, they are an important category of weapons of mass destruction. At the same time, they may be used against smaller groups or individuals as well.

What different kinds of bio-weapons are there?

Bio-weapons can be used to infect or eliminate a group directly. Indirectly, it can be used to kill crops or farm animals to cut off the food supply. 

Substances that can be used for direct biological warfare are categorized as follows: 

  • Category A: This category has the highest mortality rate. When used, it can cause a nationwide panic leading to mass unrest. To counter this, public health preparedness is required.
  • Category B: This category has relatively lower mortality rates, but still presents a potential risk through dissemination.
  • Category C: This category is not considered as a significant threat compared to the other two categories, but presents an opportunity for further development as a bioweapon. Chances of mortality, though less, are still present.

What are the most dangerous bio-weapons?

Some bio-weapons are considered more dangerous than others. This may be due to their associated mortality rates, rate of spread, or lack of treatment. 

Some of the most dangerous bio-weapons are:

Anthrax- Bacillus Anthracis, known to cause anthrax, is a century-old bioweapon that is spread through powders, food, and water. A prominent example of its use is through letters containing powdered anthrax that were sent through US postal service in 2001, affecting 22 people and eventually killing five of them.

Botulinum- C Botulinum is a potent bioweapon known to cause paralysis by producing a nerve toxin. A Japanese biological warfare group is believed to have used it on war prisoners during the occupation of Manchuria.

Ebola Virus- Ebola Virus Disease is a Disease communicated through wild animals that have a very high fatality rate, making the virus a deadly bioweapon. It was allegedly produced as a bioweapon by the Soviet Union while it still remains unknown whether it was ever used.

When were bio-weapons used?

There have been many instances of different venoms and naturally poisonous animals used in war.

Insects came into the picture many years later, supposedly during the American Civil War. The Confederacy accused the Union of using the Murgentia histrionica bug to infect the South.

The major developments in biological warfare happened during World War II. While many countries formally ratified treaties against the use of biological weapons, the research continued. 

In America, it was conducted as a counter-measure to the Germans, who were said to be developing their own bio-weapons. But the most devastating use of bio-weapons ever recorded was by the Japanese against China.

Many leaders thought there was much potential in biological warfare.

What are the laws governing bio-weapons?

The use of bio-weapons is prohibited by international humanitarian law and is considered a war crime. It is considered customary law, i.e., a law based around the principle of custom. 

Several treaties between nations, such as the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), also forbid the use of bio-weapons.

What are the counter-arguments to the US claim?

Sam Telford, a professor at the Cummings School, pointed out that  B. burgdorferi, the bacterium responsible for the Lime disease, was found in wildlife long before the condition became commonly known as shown in his previous research. Ticks collected in 1945 from Long Island, which is close to Plum Island and mice collected in 1894 on Cape Cod, were both infected by the bacterium.

Conclusion

The weight in today’s research of bio-weaponry is shifting towards defensive motives. While they provide the premise for many interesting works of fiction, humanity is fortunate to have restricted the use of bio-weapons at the stage where it can be regulated.

In the end, the spread of Lyme disease might turn out to be just an act of nature. If not, it is as bad as nuclear or chemical warfare.

RELATED: DARPA DEVELOPS PLANTS THAT COULD 'SNIFF' OUT BIO-WEAPONS 

Many great inventions have come out of defense research, but nothing good comes out of a war.

We cannot deny that collateral damage is a consequence of war, but the idea of infecting common people with a potentially life-threatening disease is inhuman. 

We need to prepare ourselves against acts of biological warfare or terrorism, but hopefully, that’ll be the extent of our contribution to the field of bio-weaponry.

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