Kris Newby’s new nonfiction book Bitten: The Secret History of Lyme Disease and Biological Weapons ($29, Harper Wave) reads like a thriller. There are hidden bank accounts, Russian agents, and government deception. Yes, it’s about ticks.
It all starts with Swiss scientist William Burgdorfer, a former researcher for the U.S. Public Health Service (now the National Institutes of Health) at Rocky Mountain Laboratories of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley. First joining the lab in the 1950s, Burgdorfer worked to develop vaccines for spotted fever, yellow fever, and other diseases transmitted to humans by bugs. His work led to the discovery in 1982 of the bacterium that causes Lyme disease, Borrelia burgdorferi, named in his honor.
In 2013, Newby saw a videotaped interview of Burgdorfer by indie filmmaker Tim Grey, in which Burgdorfer hinted that our current Lyme disease outbreak may be the result of a bioweapons experiment gone awry. Newby, who herself has had Lyme disease, is a Stanford University communications manager and science writer who was a senior producer of the 2009 documentary Under Our Skin, which has been criticized for over dramatizing the effects of Lyme disease. In detailing Newby’s search for evidence of a bioweapon-Lyme link, Bitten also over dramatizes too often: she raises more questions than answers, some that resemble conspiracy. For instance, with little evidence she speculates that Russia could have been involved in a bioweapons release while also asserting that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is purposefully hiding the truth about Lyme disease’s spread.
What is missing from Bitten is an outright admission from Burgdorfer, who was suffering from late-stage Parkinson’s when Newby interviewed him. While Newby characterizes Burgdorfer’s comments to Grey as a confession, her written account of the video reveals less an admission and more an unclear exchange. He says, “Question: Has Borrelia burgdorferi have the potential for biological warfare. Looking at the data, it already has.”
Burgdorfer never spells things out directly to Newby either, nor does she offer irrefutable proof like government documents. While she paves the way perfectly for an explosive revelation, ultimately Burgdorfer only offers vague clues that send her searching, armed with sometimes far-flung theories.
Newby lays out evidence for her theory with interviews, government documents, and Burgdorfer’s own letters and personal files. She begins with Burgdorfer who, by the early eighties, had three decades of experience working with ticks. At that time, he wasn’t looking for the cause of Lyme disease in the bugs, but instead was studying deer ticks from Long Island to uncover what was triggering spotted fever cases. One day under his microscope he found spirochetes, or corkscrew-shaped bacteria, in a tick, which were eventually tied to Lyme disease. Newby cites scientific journals and Burgdorfer’s letters to explain that before his discovery, he had spent the fifties and sixties injecting microbes like the rabies virus and epidemic typhus (Rickettsia prowazekii) inside lab-grown ticks, which was ultimately used for the U.S. biological weapons program.
“He was growing microbes inside ticks, having the ticks feed on animals, and then harvesting the microbes from the animals that exhibited the level of illness the military had requested,” Newby writes. Burgdorfer also mixed bacteria and viruses together inside ticks, she explains, which further accelerated the formation of stronger germs.
Over the years, Burgdorfer amassed an extensive collection of tick colonies, becoming “the go-to person for special tick requests for bioweapons,” Newby writes. Burgdorfer’s work was only one part of a larger bioweapons operation, which employed thousands of people and is evidenced in public records. At the end of World War II, the government had bioweapons facilities around the country, including a main research station at Fort Detrick, Maryland. The idea was to experiment with a cocktail of infectious diseases and stick them in bugs, which served as a vehicle for transmission to potential enemy forces. By the late fifties, labs at Fort Detrick were capable of breeding millions of bugs per month, such as mosquitoes that were infected with yellow fever, designed to be released via missiles. In 1969, President Nixon ended all offensive biological weapons programs.
The theory is that, whether deliberately or accidentally, infected lab-grown ticks were released into the wild as a result of these experiments. Newby weaves in claims that the U.S. government actually did release bioweapons on several occasions. From an interview with an anonymous CIA covert operative, Newby learned of an alleged case involving the military dropping disease-infected ticks over Cuba in the sixties to infect sugarcane workers. The operative’s account appears to be corroborated by a Defense Department memo dubbed Cuba Project, which reveals a proposal to incapacitate sugar cane workers with bioweapon agents in 1962. In another instance, she writes that more than 100,000 radioactive lone star ticks were set free in Virginia as part of a study, citing research in the Journal of Medical Entomology. The most well-documented example Newby presents is Operation Sea Spray, off the coast of San Francisco, when the military sprayed aerosolized simulant containing Serratia marcescens, a microbe that allegedly sent 11 people to the hospital and killed one man.
As Bitten progresses, Newby continues to highlight peculiar findings to build her case. She questions the rapid spread of Lyme disease seemingly out of nowhere in the seventies in Connecticut. She details that around the same time Burgdorfer had discovered the Lyme spirochete, he had also found another microbe dubbed the Swiss Agent. When she read through Burgdorfer’s personal papers, Newby learned that he initially thought the Swiss Agent (Rickettsia helvetica) could have been the culprit of Lyme—it was found in blood samples of people diagnosed with the illness. Eventually, though, the Swiss Agent was missing from scientific journals and all but forgotten. Newby investigates whether this microbe is making people sick today. She guesses that the Swiss Agent could be a bioweapon, and Burgdorfer intentionally left the microbe out of his Lyme discovery papers to cover up the origins of a release.
Newby’s theory rests on the idea that there would be a complex web of cover ups involving several levels of government and scientists, likely scores of people, and it’s tough to believe. It’s unclear how Burgdorfer might have been involved in all of this—either directly with a release or told to cover one up—because it’s all speculation. Newby concedes in the epilogue: “After five years of research, I wasn’t able to find verifiable documents confirming” a release. “I’m not sure why Willy refused to fully disclose the details before his death. Yet, with his passing, the only way to know the truth is for a whistle-blower to step forward or for a classified report to be released.”
Despite Newby’s thorough research, her only connection to a bioweapons accident causing Lyme disease rests with one source: Burgdorfer. And that foundation rests on shaky ground.