News of the WeekBIOLOGICAL AND CHEMICAL WARFARE

Secret Weapons Tests' Details Revealed

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Science  18 Oct 2002:
Vol. 298, Issue 5593, pp. 513-514
DOI: 10.1126/science.298.5593.513a

Documents released last week by the Pentagon about secret biological and chemical weapons tests have fueled the anger of veterans who say they were used as unwitting guinea pigs. But biological and chemical arms experts say that there are no major revelations in the documents—although they do illustrate the vast scope of the U.S. chemical and biological warfare program at the height of the Cold War.

The information was released as the Pentagon tries to document a series of 134 chemical and biological warfare studies that were planned in the 1960s. The tests came to light as the result of pressure from worried veterans—some of whom blame health problems on exposure to test agents—and members of Congress. Many of the trials were never carried out, but at least 46 trials took place, acknowledged William Winkenwerder, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, last week at a press briefing. The newly released material pertains to 27 of them. The Department of Defense intends to produce and post online detailed fact sheets about all of the tests by next spring (deploymentlink.osd.mil).

The papers document a wide-ranging effort to study biological and chemical weapons—including bacteria, nerve agents, and at least one agricultural pest. The tests were conducted from Florida to Alaska, on islands under U.S. jurisdiction and in Canada and the United Kingdom. Several of the tests involved simulants, agents resembling the real thing but considered harmless, such as Bacillus globigii, a bug now classified as a strain of Bacillus subtilis that is a close relative of the anthrax bacterium.

But real pathogens and toxic chemicals were used in more than 20 of the tests revealed so far. In an operation dubbed Shady Grove, for instance, the U.S.S. Granville S. Hall and five army tugboats in the Pacific were sprayed with two species of bacteria: Francisella tularensis, which causes tularemia, and Coxiella burnetii, the cause of Q fever. Both microbes can cause severe and potentially fatal infections.

U.S. Navy and Army crew members involved in this test “should have been fully informed of the details,” according to the fact sheet, and “should have worn appropriate … protective equipment.” But during a Senate committee hearing last week, retired Navy commander Jack Alderson, who participated in Shady Grove, testified that he was never told about the test's purpose and that no protective materials were issued. Officials say test records contain no evidence that anyone got sick, although it's not clear whether the microbes caused no infections or whether those infected were successfully treated with antibiotics.

More than a dozen tests used nerve agents, including sarin and the extremely lethal VX. In these tests—designed to show, among other things, how well the agents dispersed under various climate conditions and whether they clung to ships, clothing, or the ground—far fewer participants were involved, and they wore protective gear, according to the Pentagon.

Other trials illustrate the nation's broad interest in biowarfare. In operation “Magic Sword,” Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which can transmit yellow and dengue fevers, were released off the coast of Baker Island, a U.S. atoll in the North Pacific, to work out the logistics of mosquito-borne viral attacks. (The mosquitoes weren't infected, and they were eradicated after the exercise.) And in an experiment in Florida, the Army used a plane to spray a fungus that causes a devastating disease called stem rust. The goal was to see whether it reduced crop yields in test plots.

The Pentagon is trying to track down and inform more than 5000 people involved in the tests. So far, more than 50 veterans have filed claims with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) because they believe they're suffering from conditions triggered by the tests. But unless the vets share some common set of symptoms—which VA says is not the case—it will be next to impossible to link specific complaints to the tests, says Harvard biologist and arms control expert Matthew Meselson. The Institute of Medicine has just begun working on a $3 million study funded by VA that will compare health status and mortality among test participants to that of a control group of veterans.

Meanwhile, biological and chemical arms experts are scouring the documents for details about the U.S. program, which President Nixon ended in 1970. But most say there's little new information. An unclassified Army document published in 1977 confirmed that field tests with biological agents had taken place, says Meselson, who's surprised that the fact sheets have triggered so much publicity. “I guess the media tends to forget these things,” he says. Still, the stream of documents illustrates the surprisingly large scale of the research program, says Jonathan Tucker of the Monterey Institute's Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Washington, D.C.

The revelations also serve another, unintended purpose, says Leonard Cole of Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey, author of a book about previously revealed Army experiments on unwitting subjects. They serve as a reminder to authorities not to conduct experiments—even those in the national interest—without first obtaining informed consent from the participants.

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