Germs: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War
By Judith Miller, Stephen Engelberg and William Broad
From Chapter Two:
Germs and warfare are old allies. More than two millennia ago, Scythian archers dipped arrowheads in manure and rotting corpses to increase the deadliness of their weapons. Tatars in the fourteenth century hurled dead bodies foul with plague over the walls of enemy cities. British soldiers during the French and Indian War gave unfriendly tribes blankets sown with smallpox. The Germans in World War I spread glanders, a disease of horses, among the mounts of rival cavalries. The Japanese in World War II dropped fleas infected with plague on Chinese cities, killing hundreds and perhaps thousands of people.
Despite occasional grim successes, germ weapons have never played decisive roles in warfare or terrorism. Unintended infection is another matter. European conquests around the globe were often made possible because the indigenous peoples lacked immunity to the invaders' endemic diseases, including smallpox, measles, influenza, typhus, and plague. But intentional warfare with germ weapons has been relatively rare, especially in modern times, and has been widely condemned as unethical and inhumane. Even so, in the early twentieth century, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom were among the many countries that investigated how to wage biological war.
All understood that the weapons they were developing were fundamentally different from bombs and bullets, grenades and missiles. These munitions were alive. They could multiply exponentially and, if highly contagious, spread like wildfire. Strangest of all, given war's din, they worked silently.
In the days before atom bombs, germ weapons were seen as an ideal means of mass destruction, one that left property intact. Their main drawback was their unpredictability. In the close confines of a battlefield, the weapons followed the dictates of nature, not military commanders. They might kill an adversary, or they might bounce back and devastate the ranks of the attacker and his allies. Their best use seemed to be against a distant enemy, reducing the chance that the disease would boomerang.
With intelligence agencies warning that Tokyo and Berlin had biological weapons, Washington began to mobilize against germ attacks in 1942. President Franklin D. Roosevelt publicly denounced the exotic arms of America's foes as "terrible and inhumane," even while preparing to retaliate in kind. The man chosen to lead the secret U.S. program was George W. Merck, the president of a drug company. Merck was a household name, and generations of physicians had come to rely on The Merck Manual as a trusted guide for diagnosing and treating disease. But the new effort was designed to be nearly invisible, its degree of secrecy matched only by America's project to build the atom bomb.
This germ initiative had its headquarters at Camp Detrick, an old army base in rural Maryland that was close enough to Washington for quick responsiveness, but far enough away to ensure a margin of isolating safety. The work got under way in 1943 and expanded quickly. From a rural outpost in farm country, the base grew overnight into a dense metropolis of 250 buildings and living quarters for five thousand people.
The post was ringed by fences, towers, and floodlights. Guards, under orders to shoot first and ask questions later, kept their machine guns loaded. The scientists were issued pistols, which they kept at their sides or nearby on workbenches. The headquarters building at the heart of the compound had its own set of armed guards on alert around the clock. All personnel had identity passes with employee photos a security precaution that would become widespread in future decades. Persons leaving the post surrendered their photo passes to the guards; accidentally keeping one could lead to arrest and interrogation.
The scientists toiled on anthrax for killing enemy troops and agricultural blights for destroying Japanese rice and German potatoes. It wasn't easy work. For instance, they had to coax the anthrax bug into its best form. Toward the end of its growth cycle, they used heat or chemical shock to force the rod-shaped bacteria to convert into spores, a dormant state. When the process worked properly, the spores were very hardy, resisting heat, disinfectants, sunlight, and other environmental factors. Anthrax spores had been known to remain viable for decades. The scientists harvested the spores and put them into weapons. Upon being inhaled, the spores would convert back to rods and establish an infection.
The Detrick scientists also learned how to reap the poisons that some bacteria excrete a tactic that sidestepped the necessity of infection and instead yielded deadly toxins that could be sprayed directly on foes. One was botulinum toxin, the most poisonous compound known to science. It paralyzes muscles, including the diaphragm, without which the lungs cannot function, and its victims quickly die. In time, the scientists learned how to make botulinum toxin so concentrated that a pound of it, if properly dispersed, could in theory kill a billion people.
None of the biological arms developed by the United States were used on the battlefield during the war, and afterward the effort slowed down markedly and shrank in size. But it endured. One reason was that the Americans obtained thousands of records from Japan documenting the Imperial Army's germ-warfare program during World War II. Japan had killed thousands of Chinese in widespread attacks with anthrax, typhoid, and plague on Manchurian towns and cities, Western scholars say. Doctors in the army's infamous Unit 731 had also conducted gruesome experiments on Chinese and other prisoners of war, including Americans. Doctors had infected healthy prisoners with pathogens to learn how diseases spread. Many victims, or "logs" as the Japanese called them, were deliberately starved and frozen to death. Some were dissected alive. While nine Japanese doctors and nurses were convicted after the war of having vivisected eight captured American fliers, no senior Japanese official was tried for having waged biological warfare. And American officials granted Unit 731's chief, Shiro Ishii, and several of his associates immunity from prosecution in exchange for the voluminous records of Japan's germ program and their help in deciphering them. The scientific data were considered a windfall and carefully studied.
The American military was fascinated by a weapon of mass destruction whose costs were so low compared with those for chemical arms and the atom bomb, recently invented. The federal government worried that not only the Soviets but other adversaries making similar comparisons would be tempted to develop pathogens for warfare. Pound for pound, germ weapons were seen as potentially rivaling nuclear blasts in their power to maim and kill, and some were considered even more destructive.
In a secret report of July 1949, a panel of more than a dozen senior federal and private experts told the secretary of defense that germ weapons deserved more attention in planning and development. Such warfare was "in its infancy," the panel said, and foreseeable advances would raise weapon effectiveness "by a very large factor." Germ weapons, silent but deadly, were ideal for covert attacks. "The resemblance of the results of such sabotage to natural occurrences," the panel said, would greatly aid clandestine use. It warned that germ attacks on the United States "might be disastrous" and urgently recommended crash programs of "home defense, involving collaborate efforts of federal, state and private agencies."
Some veterans of the secretive work disagreed with the government's reasoning. Theodor Rosebury, a microbiologist at Detrick during the war, assailed germ weapons in his 1949 book Peace or Pestilence. He warned that the field's promises were illusory and that its munitions had no real military value, since the outcome of germ attacks would always be impossible to predict or control. The expertise, he argued, should instead be turned to attacking infectious disease. His plea had no immediate impact.
In April 1951, Patrick arrived at the Detrick army base on the outskirts of Frederick, Maryland. He was twenty-five.
Barbed wire ran atop its fences. CAMERAS ARE UNAUTHORIZED read the sign at the front gate.
Guards, armed and alert, stood at the entrance.
Like all new employees, Patrick signed a waiver that granted the United States government rights to his body if he died from an illness acquired at Detrick. Having done that, he received a series of vaccinations, which were required before new employees could go into "hot zones" teeming with disease germs.
He quickly learned the other survival rituals the eating of antibiotics, the washing of hands, the bathing of people and labs in ultra-violet light, the wavelength best suited for killing germs. Caution also called for protective hoods and masks, rubber gloves and boots. The men often donned protective suits that made them sweat and itch. They breathed purified air. They stood for hours at "hot boxes" glass housings with attached rubber gloves so the men could reach inside to handle glassware swarming with microbes or to assemble the guts of biological bombs. Despite the dangers, Patrick moved his family onto the post in 1952. It had its own housing, theater, restaurants, and child care. The social life revolved around the officers' club.
Patrick joined Detrick just as it was beginning to stir. The outbreak of the Cold War and the Korean War led Washington to put new emphasis on planning for germ battles. The testing of prototype nuclear arms at sites in the Soviet Union and the United States was already shaking the globe.
At Detrick, construction crews built a hollow metal sphere four stories high. Employees called it the eight ball. Inside, germ weapons were to be exploded, creating mists of infectious aerosols for testing on animals and people. Workers also erected Building 470, a windowless prototype factory for making anthrax. It rose eight stories, a skyscraper among the low buildings.
Under military orders, often clandestinely, Detrick experts fanned out to probe the nation's vulnerability to saboteurs. The scientists sprayed mild germs on San Francisco and shattered lightbulbs filled with bacteria in the New York City subway, all to assess the ability of pathogens to spread through urban centers. The germs were meant to be harmless. But years later critics charged that some had produced hidden epidemics, especially among the old and infirm. After the army sprayed the San Francisco area with Serratia marcescens, eleven patients at the Stanford University hospital came down with that type of infection. One patient died there. The doctors were so mystified by the outbreak that they wrote it up in a medical journal. The government later denied any responsibility for the death or the other infections, producing evidence in court that its germs were not to blame. The scientific dispute was never resolved.
The army also studied the threat of enemies wielding a speculative class of munitions known as ethnic weapons germs that selectively target particular races. One military worry centered on Coccidioides immitis, a fungus that causes fever, cough, and chills and, if left untreated, kills blacks far more often than whites. The military feared that it would be used against bases, where blacks tended to do the manual labor. In 1951, at navy supply depots in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, and Norfolk, Virginia, the Detrick scientists staged mock attacks with a nonlethal variant of the deadly fungus. The depots, said a report on the action, employed "many Negroes, whose incapacitation would seriously affect the operation of the supply system."
American scientists also did outdoor experiments to assess how Soviet cities could be attacked with anthrax germs. Dry runs were made against Saint Louis, Minneapolis, and Winnipeg, cities whose climates and sizes were judged similar to the Soviet targets. The effort was code-named Project Saint Jo. The clandestine tests, involving 173 releases of noninfectious aerosols, were meant to determine how much agent would have to rain down on Kiev, Leningrad, and Moscow to kill its residents. Each cluster bomb in the planned attacks held 536 bomblets. Upon hitting the ground, each bomblet would emit a little more than an ounce of anthrax mist. The disease, if untreated, kills nearly every infected person a very high rate of mortality, even compared with plague and most other pathogens.
The snow was deep and the sky clear when experimenters in a special car drove into a Minneapolis suburb of homes, light industry, trees, and pine foliage to release the test mist. There was very little wind, and the winter night was marked by a strong temperature inversion. Overhead, a dome of warm air trapped cool air below. Air samplers showed that the release traveled nearly a mile. The "dosage area," experimenters wrote, was "unusually large."
Until Patrick's arrival, America's hunt for living weapons had focused mainly on bacterial diseases, including anthrax, plague, and tularemia, a disease which kills one out of twenty people and leaves the rest very sick. Tularemia produced not only the usual chills, fever, and coughing of infectious disease but also skin lesions larger than those of smallpox ulcers up to an inch wide, their centers raw, their edges turned up in reddish mounds.
But the shortcomings of bacteria as weapons were becoming obvious. Infections acquired in attacks on cities or battlefields could be successfully treated by large doses of antibiotics the wonder drugs that Patrick as an industry researcher had been pioneering. That emerging fact of medical life diminished the role of bacteria as killers and cripplers for war.
Viruses were a beguiling alternative. Compared with bacteria, they were less complex and often more deadly. To Detrick scientists, their microscopic size offered a range of potential military advantages.
A single human egg is just visible to the naked eye and has a width of about one hundred microns, or millionths of a meter. Human hairs are seventy-five to one hundred microns wide and easier to see because they are long. An ordinary human cell is about ten microns wide and by definition invisible. Most bacteria are one or two microns wide. They and their cousins, such as the mycobacteria, are considered the smallest of the microscopic world's fully living things.
By contrast, viruses are hundreds of times smaller, and occasionally a thousand times. If bacteria were the size of cars and minivans, viruses would be the size of cell phones. One of the tinier ones, the yellow fever virus, is only two one-hundredths of a micron wide. The foot-and-mouth virus is smaller. Viruses are small because they lack most of life's usual parts and processes, such as metabolism and respiration. Scientists consider them barely alive, seeing them more as robots than organisms. To thrive and reproduce, they invade a cell and take over its biochemical gear, often at the expense of the host.
Over the ages, this biological intimacy has made viruses one of the most dangerous of all humanity's foes. They include the causative agents of influenza, smallpox, and Ebola, the scourge from Africa that bleeds its victims dry.
People can be powerless against them. Viruses are small enough to slip into cells, where they are safe from the assaults of the human immune system. By contrast, anthrax bacteria, lumbering giants at up to four microns wide, must battle their way into the body, with many thousands of them often needed to start an infestation.
Moreover, viruses are largely invulnerable to attack by antibiotics or other weapons of science because they are nearly indistinguishable from their human hosts. As an army reference book on germ warfare put it, viruses "may be particularly attractive" because so few treatments are available against them.
As Detrick scientists investigated such issues, they did know of one treatment that worked against viruses immunization. Most vaccines are made of viruses that are dead, weakened, or harmless yet biologically akin to noxious ones. When injected or, in some cases, swallowed the vaccine sends a false alarm of pending attack to the body's immune system, which then forms antibodies to fight a particular type of invader. The defensive buildup is slow. So, to ward off invaders effectively, vaccines must often be given weeks to months in advance. They seldom work right away.
From the start, the army knew that the protective action of vaccines could be turned on its head to make viruses more suitable for war. An aggressor could use immunization to protect his troops, while an unvaccinated enemy would be vulnerable.
As Patrick settled into Detrick, the genocidal power of viruses was driven home by two dramatic episodes of pest control. The target was rabbits. The creatures had overrun Australia, their numbers competing so vigorously for sheep and cattle pasture that livestock production began to fall. In 1950, scientists responded with the virus that causes myxomatosis, a disease that often kills rabbits after leaving them blind and twitching. It spread fast and killed more than 99 percent of the infected animals. Europe in the postwar period had suffered a similar explosion of rabbits, which ate farmers'crops. In 1952, French experts released a few animals infected with the virus at Eure-et-Loire, not far from the palace at Versailles. By the next year, the disease had swept not only through France but as far as Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Germany, killing up to 90 percent of the rabbits. Farmers were elated. In time, the exterminations were seen as vital to the postwar revival of European agriculture.
The rabbit killing was of special interest to the American germ warriors because the myxomatosis virus is part of the pox family, whose most famous member causes smallpox. So the rabbit drama was considered useful in studying how the smallpox virus might spread through populations of unvaccinated humans.