Biological Weapons and Third World Targets

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Biological Weapons and Third World Targets

by A. Conadera

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 13, No. 4, July/August 1981, p. 16–20

On April 4, 1980, Elie McGee, a black security guard at the Naval Biosciences Laboratory in Oakland, California, was fired for refusing a direct order to enter the lab. His reason was that an organism being researched there was a hazard to his health. Seven months earlier he had almost died from an infection with the fungus Coccidioides immitis, one of several diseases being researched at the lab. McGee, who is still undergoing treatment for the debilitating disease, is suing the Navy to get his job back.

Meanwhile, hearings began in March, 1981 in San Francisco on the strange death of Edward Nevins, a pipe-fitter who had contracted a fatal case of pneumonia in 1950 while recovering from minor surgery. Nevins’ heirs are suing the Army for $11 million, claiming that his death was caused by secret biological warfare tests conducted shortly before he died.

These two incidents have refocused attention on a once hotly-debated issue both in the general public and the scientific community: biological warfare. This article will deal with that topic, and particularly with the problem raised by McGee’s disease, race-specific warfare.

A Brief Backward Blance

U.S. involvement in biological warfare (BW) began in earnest during World War II. Fearing the Germans were developing biological warfare, the Army. opened a facility at Fort Detrick, Maryland, specifically for biological warfare research. During the postwar years, investigations and testing at Fort Detrick flourished, nurtured by questionable U.S. intelligence reports that the U.S.S.R. had an advanced BW capability which threatened U.S. security.1

Between 1946 and 1972, over 1600 scientific papers by Fort Detrick scientists were published in the open literature.2 In addition, the Fort Detrick facility engaged in research funded by the CIA, and the Department of Defense funded hundreds of BW projects at corporations and universities throughout the country. The Navy also joined the BW bandwagon; according to former Congressman Richard McCarthy in his book The Ultimate Folly, the Naval Biosciences Laboratory, where McGee was working when he fell ill, became “a major Navy BW center.”

Funding for BW research, as with other aspects of the military budget, rose and fell in response to international events, always justified by the alleged Soviet threat. With charming candor, an Army report explains:

The Korean War spurred efforts to again develop a BW retaliatory capability based on the ominous threat of USSR involvement but there was reluctance to publicize the program.3

During the Korean War, a new plant built specifically for research on antipersonnel agents was developed at Pine Bluff, Arkansas, while growth of the Fort Detrick plant continued.

The next big increase in BW efforts came immediately following the Cuban Revolution in January, 1959. By mid-year, the Pentagon recommended a five-fold expansion of the BW program over a five-year period. The same year the Army’s anticrop program, which was to grow to grotesque proportions during the Vietnam War, was revived after a two-year lull.

Biological warfare research continued until November, 1969, when a combination of pressures from the U.S. Congress, the United Nations, and the American public led to a White House renunciation of the use of biological weapons. Under President Nixon’s order, existing BW stocks were to be destroyed and further research confined to “defensive” purposes.

Studies Stockpiles and Stimulants

In the subsequent post-Vietnam backlash against covert activities, a combination of independent research, Senate investigations, and documents released under the Freedom of Information Act, reveal the scope of pre-1969 U.S. BW research and testing.

In 1977, the U.S. Senate called upon the Army to explain and defend all of its BW research involving human subjects. The Army’s BW efforts, it was learned, were categorized into antipersonnel, antianimal, and anticrop agents. Programs labelled “offensive” consisted of basic research into “promising” BW agents, development of dispersal methods (everything from anthrax bombs to mosquitos to cloud-seeding), and stockpiling BW agents. In cold Army language,

Antipersonnel agent research covered a wide range of highly infectious pathogenic bacteria, rickettsia, viruses and fungi and extremely toxic products of bacterial origin (toxins). Research efforts were directed toward selection and preservation of the most virulent strains, establishing human dosages, enhancing storageability, and survival when released as an aerosol. Technology for large-scale production of the most promising agents was developed. [emphasis added]4

Similar objectives were carried out in the anticrop and antianimal research programs. In addition, “defensive” BW research was oriented towards safety, physical and medical protection, and detection systems.

One of the most controversial aspects of the Army’s BW program involved testing “simulants”—substances which are similar to potential BW agents but supposedly harmless to humans. The first “large area vulnerability test” involved spraying the bacteria Serratia marcescens (considered a simulant of pathogenic bacteria) into shorebound winds off San Francisco Bay in 1950; this is the incident which Albert Nevins’ family claims caused both his death from Serratia pneumonia and a small epidemic of rare Serratia infections in the Bay Area.5 Another early Fort Detrick caper involved contaminating shipping containers at Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania with spores of the mold Aspergillus fumigatus (considered a Coccidioides simulant). The Army monitored the dispersal of the spores during and after their voyage to Norfolk, Virginia in May, 1951.6

The Targets

What and who are the intended targets of BW? Certainly the Department of Defense has more rapid and effective means for annihilating potential enemy troops, animals and crops. But the dispersed rural populations of most Third World countries, who make poor targets for conventional weapons, are particularly vulnerable to BW attack because of their poor public health and nutritional status and barely sufficient agriculture. The Army’s report to the U.S. Senate is again illuminating: ” … the advent of limited war and small scale conflict evoked a need for weapons which could assist in controlling conflict with minimum casualties.” [emphasis added]7 Lappe puts it more bluntly:

CB [chemical-biological] weapons systems are currently being developed for use in wars of counter-insurgency and limited war: as such they will be used against under-developed countries.8

BW in the Present Time

The 1969 ban on BW warfare left intact the “defensive” aspects of the Department of Defense BW research and development. The Department of Defense, in turn, agreed to destroy all existing BW stockpiles. Did they?

In April, 1975, it was leaked that a CIA project still maintained stocks of BW agents at Fort Detrick, and a declassified Army document maintains that there were connections between the project and “specific assassination plans.”9 An investigation at Fort Detrick uncovered stocks of shellfish toxin and cobra venom. These revelations, along with the necessarily covert nature of BW research, have created much suspicion about the status of BW activities today. Detailed evidence is difficult or impossible to get. But a close look at two other recent incidents suggests that the deadly game of BW may be very much alive in the U.S. today.

Case # 1: Offensive BW and the Cuba Connection

According to Lappe, the Army’s BW research team at Fort Detrick was prepared to use a BW agent (probably Q fever) against Cuba at the time of the 1962 Missile Crisis.10 Newsday, a Long Island newspaper, in December, 1976 first broke the story of a deadly swine virus destined for Cuba in 1971, with “at least the tacit backing of the CIA.” This virus caused the destruction of a half-million pigs in Cuba.

Last year, a sudden influx of refugees from Cuba to the U.S. was much ballyhooed in the U.S. press as an indictment of socialism. But an investigative report published by The Nation revealed another possible explanation:

During the past two years, Cuba has seen plant blights decimate its sugar, tobacco, and cof-fee crops, African swine fever destroy its hog herds, and a Greek tanker foul its shellfish beds … this simultaneous destruction of Cuba’s major foreign exchange earners and most important meat source has no parallel in Cuban history. It is a conjunction of plagues that would lead people less paranoid about the U.S. than the Cubans to wonder whether human hands had not played a role in these natural disasters—particularly as past U.S. Senate investigations have revealed that the last time African swine fever appeared in Cuba the CIA was responsible for its introduction.11

The ”year of the plagues” caused considerable comment in the official Cuban press, which stopped just short of a formal accusation against the U.S. Suspicion was extremely high, however, because the new cane smut disease was specific to the country’s newest and best variety of sugar cane.12

The Nation‘s article went on to point out that this devastation to Cuba’s economy and prestige occurred at a time when Washington was anxious to dissuade “several Central American and Caribbean countries” from choosing the socialist road. The proximity of U.S. bases, including the one at Guantanamo, Cuba, and the recent opening up of Cuba for U.S. tourism, provide more than ample routes for dissemination of BW agents.

Case # 2: The Curious Case of Cocci

The Army was ordered to destroy all of its BW stockpiles in 1969. In its report to the U.S. Senate, it claimed to have destroyed stocks of the following disease organisms:

  1. Anthrax,
  2. Tularemia,
  3. Venezuelan Equine Encephalitis,
  4. Brucella suis,
  5. Brucella melitensis,
  6. Salmonella typhimurium
  7. Variola (smallpox),
  8. Mycobacterium tuberculosis,
  9. Coccidioides immitis.

The first six are infections native to animals which can, if introduced into the animal population, be transmitted to humans. All of these, along with the smallpox virus, have caused major epidemics with high fatality rates. Numbers eight and nine deserve some scrutiny. Tuberculosis is a highly infectious disease in which malnutrition and crowding play a major role in morbidity rates. In addition, it is a disease to which blacks have been shown to be more susceptible than whites, even when socioeconomic differences are taken into account (in World War II, 500Jo of all deaths from TB were among blacks, who made up only 10% of Army personnel).

What about Coccidioides immitis, the organism which caused Elie McGee to lose his job? Known in the medical world as Valley Fever or “cocci” (pronounced cock-see), this obscure fungus is native to the desert and semiarid soils of central California and the Southwestern U.S., and arid areas of Mexico and Central America. Its growth requirements include hot summers, wet winters, and infrequent frost. During the dry season, cocci produces spores which, when inhaled, can cause disease. Mini-epidemics have been caused by minor disturbances in soil, as in plowing or construction.

Although the infection rate is extremely high (over 80% in endemic areas, as demonstrated by skin sensitivity tests), most victims experience a subclinical or mild flu-like episode. This is known as primary, or pulmonary, cocci. In some cases, however, the fungus in the lungs multiplies and disseminates throughout the body, infecting almost any organ system. This serious complication is secondary, or progressive cocci.

Progressive cocci has the dubious distinction of attacking nonwhite races at a much higher rate than whites. Among Caucasians who develop primary cocci, about 1% develop the disseminated form; among Blacks in endemic areas of California and Arizona, the percentage is 20-25%.13 These patterns of susceptibility have been found to hold true even when socioeconomic and occupational variables are taken into account. In a study of cocci spread by a dust storm to nonendemic areas of California, 11% of whites and 59% of blacks developed the disseminated form of the disease.14 Mexicans and Native Americans tend to be intermediate in susceptibility; Filipinos appear even more susceptible than Blacks, although data are scanty. Numerous studies, many of them conducted by the military, have borne out these statistics. Other variables, such as occupational and nutritional status, have been shown not to account for cocci’s strong racial preferences.15

Once cocci has disseminated, the mortality rate is a staggering 50-60%, even with treatment. The fungus consumes its victims much as mold consumes a loaf of bread. Only one drug, Amphotericin B, has any effectiveness against the disease; but since the drug attacks cholesterol in cell membranes, it is extremely toxic and must be given slowly over a long period of time. Elie McGee is still undergoing the painful treatments with Amphotericin B.

Cocci has been part of the Department of Defense’s BW arsenal from the outset. An Army report to the U.S. Senate lists three “biological field tests” involving cocci at its Dugway Proving Ground facility between 1960 and 1964, and numerous other tests were conducted using Aspergillus fumigatus, a cocci simulant.16 The race-specific nature of cocci was not lost on the Department of Defense. In its report on the intentional contamination of shipping containers with Aspergillus spores, the Army noted:

Within this [Naval supply] system there are employed large number of laborers, including many Negroes … since Negroes are more susceptible to coccidioides than are whites, this fungus disease was simulated using Aspergillus fumigatus mutant C-2.17

Of the half-dozen significant systemic fungal diseases of humans, only cocci shows such pronounced racial specificity, and only cocci has been researched as a biological warfare agent by the DOD.

Ethnic Weapons?

Cocci, then, belongs in the murky category of possible race-specific weapons. There is also no doubt that the DOD has been very interested in developing race-specific weapons. In the past, diseases introduced into a population previously unexposed—such as measles and influenza introduced into the Americas by Europeans—have been “ethnic weapons” for a time, until a new equilibrium between the organism and host populations has been established. But modern technology, particularly in the rapidly expanding field of genetic engineering, is making it increasingly possible to tailor the organism to the victim, or vice-versa. Ten years ago, geneticist Carl Larson reviewed the state of the art for the professional journal of the U.S. army, Military Review. In the article entitled ”Ethnic Weapons,” he writes,

Although the study of drug metabolizing enzymes is only beginning, observed variations in drug response have pointed to the possibility of great innate differences in vulnerability to chemical agents between different populations.18

The advantage of this type of warfare Larson continues, is that “forthcoming chemical agents with selective manstopping power will put into the hands of an assailant a weapon with which he cannot be attacked.”

Population differences in enzyme systems, according to Larson, provide the most promising basis for “ethnic weapons.” Although the extent of the DOD’s research on cocci remains unknown, a report prepared by the military on the racial specificity of cocci proposes that the reason may lie in enzymes in white blood cells which are involved in the immune response.19

Offensive Versus Defensive

Why does the DOD continue to fund research on cocci twelve years after the U.S. renounced biological warfare? The question raises the issue of the fine, sometimes nonexistent, line between offensive research, which was banned, and defensive research, which is still permitted. The Naval Biosciences Laboratory was widely attacked during the Vietnam war as a BW research center; according to the Lab’s Dr. Hilary Levine, however, cocci research there now is confined to developing a vaccine, which is now being tested on human volunteers in California. But we should note that a vaccine withheld from some populations and provided to others has powerful military applications; and before we rejoice at seeing cocci go the way of polio and smallpox, it is worth asking why the DOD wants a vaccine for cocci, how available it will be, and what other research might be going on.

Testimony by an Army spokesman at Senate hearings in 1977 makes the DOD’s interest in vaccines plain: “A major effort of research is the development, production, and stockpiling of vaccines that can be used by the U.S. military troops deployed anywhere in the world.” The Army’s anti-plague vaccine (for which the NBL did the field testing) is a case in point: the ecological damage created by the Vietnam war greatly increased the rodent population and serious outbreaks of plague began to occur; the vaccine was used for U.S. troops and “friendly forces” only. It is worth noting, also, that a safe and effective vaccine against another stockpiled BW agent, tuberculosis, is widely used in Europe and Latin America; it is not distributed in this country, where Blacks and other minority groups account for a disproportionate percentage of TB deaths. Lappe makes the claim that,

our CBW program has never been for the purpose of protecting the civilian population. . . it is clear that our whole approach to immunization places it ·in the category of an offensive BW program … It involves only exotic diseases of little danger to public health and pertains only to men of military age.20

In addition, Lappe continues, “where we have developed vaccines against BW agents, they have been against the types we ourselves produce.” Seymour Hersch, in Chemical and Biological Warfare, puts it this way: “in the context of biological warfare, even life-saving techniques such as immunization take on a strange aspect: immunity among one’s own population and troops is a prerequisite to the initiations of disease by our own forces.”21

Thus the exact same research can be beneficial or most sinister, depending on the uses to which it is to be put. A panel of public health experts testified to the U.S. Senate:

. . . some degree of Biological Warfare Research continues in the Department of Defense with a budget in 1975-1976 of close to $18 million. While this research emphasizes “defensive research”, the distinction between “offensive” and “defensive” is often no more than a semantic one.22

BW and International Law

Philip Noel-Baker, a participant at the Geneva Conference of 1925 (at which the Geneva Protocol on Chemical and Biological Warfare was negotiated), recalls clearly that the intention was to prohibit “every kind of chemical or bacterial weapon that anyone could possibly devise; [for] perhaps some day a criminal lunatic might invent some devilish thing that would destroy animals and crops.” The U.S. refused to sign the Protocol until 1975, but had always claimed to be bound by its spirit and opposed to first use of chemical and biological weapons. It is impossible to reconcile this State Department claim with Defense Department reality. For instance, tear gases were banned by the Geneva Protocol, yet the U.S. used tear gas in exceedingly high concentration in Vietnam.

In our increasingly militaristic society, medical research projects, along with all other scientific endeavors, will be funded if at all, by the military. It follows that the results will be used as the military sees fit. Meanwhile, members of the public such as Nevins and McGee (and possibly the entire population of Cuba) will continue to suffer the consequences of the secret and deadly research being conducted in biological warfare.

A. Conadera is a laboratory technologist and member of East Bay Science for the People. Research materials were gen-erously provided by Vivian Rainieri of People’s World.

>> Back to Vol. 13, No. 4<<


  1. Dr. Marc Lappe, in Chemical and Biological Warfare: The Science of Public Death (Berkeley: Student Research Facility, 1969) claims that these reports were based on a complete misinterpretation of Soviet biological research. U.S. intelligence cited as BW research the numerous published Soviet investigations of such diseases as tularemia, plague, and Q fever. Lappe points out that these diseases were common in the U.S.S.R.’s rural and war-ravaged population. “Thus, what appear to us to be exotic bacteriological, viral and rickettsial agents in our BW arsenal are as common as measles and mumps in Russia.” (p. 5)
  2. Senate Hearings: Hearings before the Subcommittee on Health and Scientific Research of the Committee on Human Resources of the U.S. Senate, 95th Congress, March 8 and May 23, 1977. The subject: Biological Testing Involving Human Subjects by the Department of Defense. The biggest contractors were: Aerojet-General Corp. (29 contracts, 1956-70); University of Wisconsin (21, 1950-69); Southern Research Institute (16, 1951-63); and University of Minnesota (18, 1950-70).
  3. Ibid., p. 37.
  4. Loc. Cit.
  5. “What does U.C. Know about Edward Nevins’ Death?” Common Ground, October, 1979, p. 12.
  6. Field Test and Meteorology Division, Chemical Corps Biological Laboratories, U.S. Army, Camp Detrick, Frederick, Maryland, Special Report No. 160, 12 September 1951, p. 1.
  7. Senate Hearings, Op. Cit., p. 44.
  8. Lappe, Marc, Chemical and Biological Warfare: The Science of Public Death (Berkeley: Student Research Facility, 1969), p. 13. [available from East Bay Women for Peace, 2495 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, Ca. 94704]
  9. Senate Hearings, Op. Cit., pp. 244-45 .
  10. Lappe, Op. Cit., p. 7.
  11. Winn, Peter, “After the Exodus: Is the Cuban Revolution in Trouble?” The Nation, June7,1980.
  12. Speech by Fidel Castro, Granma (Weekly Review) March 16, 1980.
  13. Smith, C.E., et al., “Varieties of coccidiodal infection in relation to the epidemiology and control of the diseases,” American Journal of Public Health, 1946,36, 1394.
  14. Pappagianis, D. and Einstein, H., “Tempest from Tehachapi takes toll or Coccidioides conveyed aloft and afar,” Western Journal of Medicine, 1978,129, 527.
  15. Huntington, R.W., Jr., “Pathologic and Clinical observations on coccidioidomycosis,” Wisconsin Medical Journal, 1959, 8, 471.
  16. Senate Hearings, Op. Cit., p. 135 
  17. Special Report No. 160, Op. Cit., p. 1.
  18. Larson, Carl, “Ethnic Weapons,” Military Review, Vol. L, No. II, November, 1970.
  19. Pappagianis, D., et al., “The Influence of Ethnic Background on the Clinical Course of Coccidiodomycosis,” Unpublished report supported in part by U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command, undated, p. 7.
  20. Lappe Op. Cit., p. 22-23.
  21. Hersch, Seymour, Chemical and Biological Warfare: America’s Hidden Arsenal (New York: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1968).
  22. Senate Hearings, Op. Cit., p. 266.