There are some who say the U.S. military created and spread Lyme disease across the land.

It sounds like one of those conspiracy theories that crop up about most every significant national event, from the supposedly faked moon landing to the inane chatter that airliners crashing into them couldn’t have brought down the World Trade Center without assistance from explosives planted by the government.

Yet the idea that the U.S. government may have created tick-borne Lyme disease as part of a biowarfare program mistake took on a mantle of credibility when the U.S. House last week unanimously endorsed a call to find out whether it really happened.

During debate about the National Defense Authorization Act, a bill that funds the Pentagon, U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican, offered an amendment that went straight to the heart of the question about whether the military experimented with making ticks into weapons.

A deer tick, carrier of the bacteria that causes Lyme disease. The US House unanimously endorsed a Pentagon study of whether Lyme disease was caused by a military bioweapons program. Griffin Dill photo

His amendment requires the military’s inspector general to examine “whether the Department of Defense experimented with ticks and other insects regarding its use as a biological weapon between the years of 1950 and 1975.”

If “any experiment” occurs, according to the amendment, the inspector general is supposed to report on its scope and “whether any ticks or insects” used “were released outside of any laboratory by accident or experiment design.”


After Smith talked about his amendment on the House floor, there was no debate about it. Nobody rose to question or counter his request.

Instead, the House endorsed it along with a number of other proposed amendments that were not considered controversial. The Senate has not yet taken up the bill.

Lyme disease, first identified in Connecticut in 1975, is a serious problem in Maine. There have been 217 cases reported this year alone, according to the Maine Tracking Network run by the state’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Smith, a founding member and co-chairman of the House Lyme Disease Caucus, has a passion for dealing with Lyme disease. His Tick Act, a bill in committee that U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine is co-sponsoring, would boost funding for research, prevention and treatment programs by $180 million.

In pushing for the study of ticks as bioweapons, Smith told colleagues that many books and articles have for years suggested that “significant research had been done at U.S. Government facilities,” including Fort Detrick in Maryland and Plum Island, New York, “to turn ticks and other insects into bioweapons.”

Since Plum Island is about 8 miles across Long Island Sound from Lyme, Connecticut, National Geographic once called the theory the disease may have escaped from the military facility “compelling but controversial.”


The bacteria that causes Lyme disease, however, is not new. Yale researchers studying its DNA found several years ago that it’s been around in North America for at least 60,000 years, long before any people lived on the continent.

Lyme disease has been found in ticks trapped in amber 15 million years ago in what is now the Dominican Republic. It also turned up in the frozen body of a man who died in the Alps more than 5,000 years ago.

A doctoral student, Katharine Walter, told the Yale School of Public Health that the disease has spread in recent times because of deforestation and the spread of suburbs in New England and the Midwest that created ideal conditions for deer ticks, which carry the bacteria. A warming climate isn’t helping, other scientists have pointed out.

Without disputing the scientific consensus, Smith cited a new book by Kris Newby, “Bitten: The Secret History of Lyme Disease and Biological Weapons,” for its allegation that the scientist who first identified the cause of Lyme disease, Willy Burgdorfer, “was also a bioweapons specialist.”

A columnist for Psychology Today, Susan K. Perry, said she is skeptical of most conspiracy claims and read Newby’s book “with extra care” as a result, paying attention to its caveats and end notes.

By the time she finished it, Perry said she grew to trust the work. Newby’s analysis, she said, “needs to be taken seriously.”


Pingree, a Democrat who represents Maine’s 1st District, said “Bitten” has raised “serious questions about the Pentagon’s role in tick research. Fully understanding the scope and purpose of this research is important — especially if the findings can help prevention and treatment efforts now.”

Smith asserted that files from Burgdorfer’s lab “reveal that he and other bioweapons specialists stuffed ticks with pathogens to cause severe disability, disease, even death to potential enemies.”

Burgdorfer, who died in 2014, was a legend in his field, honored with the Walter Reed Medal in 1990 and the Robert Koch Gold Medal two years earlier. He was one of the world’s foremost experts on ticks and happily admitted he had dissected thousands over the years.

In an oral history with the National Institutes of Health, he said he worked for three years at a military lab in Colorado in the 1950s that sought to research techniques allowing for the rapid identification of pathogens for defensive purposes.

But could he have had a secret side that turned out to be a disaster for public health? Smith said, “Americans have a right to know whether any of this is true,” which is another way of saying he doesn’t know.

If it is true,  the lawmaker said, he wants to know the program’s parameters, who ordered it and whether any diseases were mistakenly or purposely released.


“The millions of people suffering from Lyme and other tick-borne diseases deserve to know the truth,” Smith said.

Maine lawmakers have supported efforts to deal with Lyme disease for years, including pushing successfully in 2016 to mandate the creation of a long-term federal plan to tackle what Pingree, a member of the Lyme disease caucus, called “an enormous public health problem.”

Maine’s U.S. senators also are eager for the nation to give greater attention to tick-borne diseases.

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican, teamed up this year with a Minnesota Democrat, Tina Smith, to introduce the “Ticks: Identify, Control and Knockout Act.” Maine’s other senator, independent Angus King, is one of its original co-sponsors.

“To knock out Lyme and other tick-borne diseases, we need a unified approach with leadership at the federal level and resources at the local level,” Collins said in a prepared statement.

Her bill would establish an Office of Oversight and Coordination for Vector-Borne Disease at the Department of Health and Human Services, reauthorize regional centers that deal with disease spread by ticks and authorize grants of up to $20 million annually to help state health departments gather data and raise awareness.

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