Spitfire List Web site and blog of anti-fascist researcher and radio personality Dave Emory.

For The Record  

FTR #480 Plum Island, Lyme Disease and the Erich Traub File

Recorded October 3, 2004
REALAUDIO
NB: This stream contains both FTRs 479 and 480 in sequence. Each is a 30 minute broadcast.

In the mid-1970’s Lyme Disease broke out in Connecticut and it has since spread through much of the United States. This program examines the possibility that Lyme Disease may have spread as a result of clandestine experimentation on biological warfare on Plum Island—a Department of Agriculture facility that doubled as an Army BW research facility. Dedicated to the study of animal diseases, Plum Island appears to have been the site of experiments with disease-infected ticks conducted by Nazi scientists brought into the United States under Project Paperclip. One of the Nazi scientists who appears to have been involved with Plum Island was Dr. Erich Traub, who was in charge of the Third Reich’s virological and bacteriological warfare program in World War II. Was Traub involved with experiments that led to the spread of Lyme Disease?

Program Highlights Include: Examination of Traub’s studies in the US prior to World War II; Traub’s pro-Nazi activities inside the US before the war; John Loftus’ discovery of references in the National Archives to Nazi scientists experimenting with diseased ticks on Plum Island; Lyme Disease activist Steven Nostrum’s discovery of Loftus’ findings and his work investigating Plum Island; Details of Traub’s involvement with Plum Island; files about Tick Research and Erich Traub that have been purged; Scientific American’s dismissal of the Plum Island/Traub/Paperclip/Lyme Disease link; the Nazi heritage of the Von Holtzbrinck firm—which owns Scientific American; Plum Island experimentation with the disease-carrying “Lone Star Tick”; the fact that the Lone Star Tick—native to Texas—has somehow spread to New York, New Jersey and Connecticut!

1. In order to understand how Erich Traub came to the United States, it is important to understand Project PAPERCLIP. The program begins with a synoptic account of that project and how its prosecution led to Traub’s entry to the United States and his involvement with Plum Island: “Nearing the end of World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union raced to recruit German scientists for postwar purposes. Under a top-secret program code-named Project PAPERCLIP, the U.S. military pursued Nazi scientific talent ‘like forbidden fruit,’ bringing them to America under employment contracts and offering them full U.S. citizenship. The recruits were supposed to be nominal participants in Nazi activities. But the zealous military recruited more than two thousand scientists, many of whom had dark Nazi party pasts.”
(Lab 257: the Disturbing Story of the Government’s Secret Plum Island Germ Laboratory; by Michael Christopher Carroll; Copyright 2004 by Michael Christopher Carroll; HarperCollins [HC]; p. 7.)

2. “American scientists viewed these Germans as peers, and quickly forgot they were on opposite sides of a ghastly global war in which millions perished. Fearing brutal retaliation from the Soviets for the Nazis’ vicious treatment of them, some scientists cooperated with the Americans to earn amnesty. Others played the two nations off each other to get the best financial deal in exchange for their services. Dr. Erich Traub was troubling on the Soviet side of the Iron Curtain after the war, and ordered to research germ warfare viruses for the Russians. He pulled off a daring escape with his family to West Berlin in 1949. Applying for Project Paperclip employment, Traub affirmed he wanted to ‘do scientific work in the U.S.A., become an American citizen, and be protected from Russian reprisals.’” (Idem.)

3. The program sets forth Traub’s work for the Third Reich: “As lab chief of Insel Riems—a secret Nazi biological warfare laboratory on a crescent-shaped island nestled in the Baltic Sea—Traub worked directly for Adolf Hitler’s second-in-charge, SS Reichsfuehrer Heinrich Himmler, on live germ trials. . . .” (Ibid.; pp. 7-8.)

4. Traub had studied in the United States before the war (at the Rockefeller Institute) and had been involved in Nazi activities inside the U.S. prior to 1939 (the outbreak of World War II). “ . . . Traub also listed his 1930’s membership in Amerika-Deutscher Volksbund, a German-American ‘club’ also known as Camp Sigfriend. Just thirty miles west of Plum Island in Yaphank, Long Island, Camp Sigfried was the national headquarters of the American Nazi movement. . . .Ironically, Traub spent the prewar period of his scientific career on a fellowship at the Rockefeller Institute in Princeton, New Jersey, perfecting his skills in viruses and bacteria under the tutelage of American experts before returning to Nazi Germany on the eve of war. Despite Traub’s troubling war record, the U.S. Navy recruited him for its scientific designs, and stationed him at the Naval Medical Research Institute in Bethesda, Maryland.” (Ibid.; p. 8.)

5. Nominally under the jurisdiction of the USDA (Department of Agriculture), Plum Island was also used for military biological warfare research on animal diseases. In that regard, it was involved with Fort Dietrick, the Army’s top chemical and biological warfare facility. Note that Traub was at the foundation of the Plum Island/biological warfare nexus. “Just months into his PAPERCLIP contract, the germ warriors of Fort Detrick, the Army’s biological warfare headquarters, in Frederick, Maryland, and CIA operatives invited Traub in for a talk, later reported in a declassified top-secret summary: Dr. Traub is a noted authority on viruses and diseases in Germany and Europe. This interrogation revealed much information of value to the animal disease program from a Biological Warfare point of view. Dr. Traub discussed work done at a German animal disease station during World War II and subsequent to the war when the station was under Russian control.’ Traub’s detailed explanation of the secret operation on Insel Riems, and his activities there during the war and for the Soviets, laid the ground work for Fort Detrick’s offshore germ warfare animal diseased lab on Plum Island. Traub was a founding father. . . .” (Ibid.; pp. 8-9.)

6. It is interesting to note that the Third Reich’s biological warfare program had the cover name of “Cancer Research Program.” (In RFA#16—available from Spitfire—as well as FTR#’s 16, 73, we look at the National Cancer Institute’s Special Viral Cancer Research Program and the evidence suggesting that the project was actually a front for the continuation of biological warfare research. Erich Traub appears to have been involved with the projects related to the SVCRP.) “ . . . Everybody seemed willing to forget about Erich Traub’s dirty past—that he played a crucial role in the Nazis’ ‘Cancer Research Program,’ the cover name for their biological warfare program, and that he worked directly under SS Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler. They seemed willing to overlook that Traub in the 1930’s faithfully attended Camp Sigfried. In fact, the USDA liked him so much, it glossed over his dubious past and offered him the top scientist job at the new Plum Island Laboratory—not once, but twice. Just months after the 1952 public hearings on selecting Plum Island, Doc Shahan dialed Dr. Traub at the naval laboratory to discuss plans for establishing the germ laboratory and a position on Plum Island.” (Ibid.; p. 10.)

7. More about how Traub came to be in a significant position at Plum Island. “Six years later—and only two years after Traub squirmed in his seat at the Plum Island dedication ceremonies—senior sc

ientist Dr. Jacob Traum retired. The USDA needed someone of ‘outstanding caliber, with a long established reputation, internationally as well as nationally,’ to fill Dr. Traum’s shoes. But somehow it couldn’t find a suitable American. ‘As a last resort it is now proposed that a foreigner be employed.’ The aggies’ choice? Erich Traub, who was in their view ‘the most desirable candidate from any source.’ The 1958 secret USDA memorandum ‘Justification for Employment of Dr. Erich Traub’ conveniently omitted his World War II activities; but it did emphasize that ‘his originality, scientific abilities, and general competence as an investigator’ were developed at the Rockefeller Institute in New Jersey in the 1930’s.” (Idem.)

8. The push to employ Traub as the director of Plum Island involved professional recommendations that omitted his work for the Third Reich: “The letters supporting Traub to lead Plum Island came in from fellow Plum Island founders. ‘I hope that every effort will be made to get him. He has had long and productive experience in both prewar and postwar Germany,’ said Dr. William Hagan, dean of the Cornell University veterinary school, carefully dispensing with his wartime activities. The final word came from his dear American friend and old Rockefeller Institute boss Dr. Richard Shope, who described Traub as ‘careful, skill, productive and very original’ and ‘one of this world’s most outstanding virologists.’ Shope’s sole reference to Traub at war: ‘During the war he was in Germany serving in the German Army.’” (Idem.)

9. Traub declined the offer to lead the lab. There is considerable evidence that he was involved with biological warfare research at Plum Island. “Declining the USDA’s offer, Traub continued his directorship of the Tubingen laboratory in West Germany, though he visited Plum Island frequently. In 1960, he was forced to resign as Tubingen’s director under a dark cloud of financial embezzlement. Traub continued sporadic lab research for another three years, and then left Tubingen for good–a scandalous end to a checkered career. In the late 1970’s, the esteemed virologist Dr. Robert Shope, on business in Munich, paid his father Richard’s old Rockefeller Institute disciple a visit. The germ warrior had been in early retirement for about a decade by then. ‘I had dinner with Traub one day—out of old time’s sake—and he was a pretty defeated man by then.’ On May 18, 1985, the Nazis’ virus warrior Dr. Erich Traub died unexpectedly in his sleep in West Germany. He was seventy-eight years old.” (Ibid.; pp. 10-11.)

10. “A biological warfare mercenary who worked under three flags—Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and the United States—Traub was never investigated for war crimes. He escaped any inquiry into his wartime past. The full extent of his sordid endeavors went with him to his grave. While America brought a handful of Nazi war criminals to justice, it safeguarded many others in exchange for verses to the new state religion—modern science and espionage. Records detailing a fraction of Eric Traub’s activities are now available to the public, but most are withheld by Army intelligence and the CIA on grounds of national security. But there’s enough of a glimpse to draw quite a sketch.” (Ibid.; p. 11.)

11. An important chapter in the story of how the inquiry into the possible link between Plum Island, Erich Traub’s work on behalf of the US and the spread of Lyme Disease concerns the work of former Justice Department prosecutor John Loftus. In his book The Belarus Secret, Loftus referred to work done on Plum Island in the early 1950’s in which Nazi scientists were experimenting on diseased ticks. Might that have referred to Traub?! “ . . . Attorney John Loftus was hired in 1979 by the Office of Special Investigations, a unit set up by the Justice Department to expose Nazi war crimes and unearth Nazis hiding in the United States. Given top-secret clearance to review files that had been sealed for thirty-five years, Loftus found a treasure trove of information on America’s postwar Nazi recruiting. In 1982, publicly challenging the government’s complacency with the wrongdoing, he told 60 Minutes that top Nazi officers had been protected and harbored in America by the CIA and the State Department. ‘They got the Emmy Award,’ Loftus wrote. ‘My family got the death threats.’” (Ibid.; p. 13.)

12. “Old spies reached out to him after the publication of his book, The Belarus Secret, encouraged that he—unlike other authors—submitted his manuscript to the government, agreeing to censor portions to protect national security. The spooks gave him copies of secret documents and told him stories of clandestine operations. From these leads, Loftus ferreted out the dubious Nazi past of Austrian president and U.N. secretary general Kurt Waldheim. Loftus revealed that during World War II, Waldheim had been an officer in a German Army unit that committed atrocities in Yugoslavia. A disgraced Kurt Waldheim faded from the international scene soon thereafter.” (Idem.)

13. “In the preface of The Belarus Secret, Loftus laid out a striking piece of information gleaned from his spy network: ‘Even more disturbing are the records of the Nazi germ warfare scientists who came to America. They experimented with poison ticks dropped from planes to spread rare diseases. I have received some information suggesting that the U.S. tested some of these poison ticks on the Plum Island artillery range off the coast of Connecticut during the early 1950’s. . . .Most of the germ warfare records have been shredded, but there is a top secret U.S. document confirming that ‘clandestine attacks on crops and animals’ took place at this time.” (Idem.)

14. More pieces of evidence on the tantalizing trail of evidence pointing to a possible Plum Island/Traub/Lyme disease link: “Erich Traub had been working for the American biological warfare program from his 1949 Soviet escape until 1953. We know he consulted with Fort Dietrick scientists and CIA operatives; that he worked for the USDA for a brief stint; and that he spoke regularly with Plum Island director Doc Shahan in 1952. Traub can be physically placed on Plum Island at least three times—on dedication day in 1956 and two visits, once in 1957 and again in the spring of 1958. Shahan, who enforced an ultrastrict policy against outside visitors, each time received special clearance from the State Department to allow Traub on Plum Island soil.” (Ibid.; p. 14.)

15. If in fact Traub was involved with research on Plum Island, this development would have been consistent with programs being conducted at that time involving experimentation on unwitting American citizens with biological and chemical warfare research agents: “Research unearthed three USDA files from the vault of the National Archives—two were labeled TICK RESEARCH and a third E.TRAUB. All three folders were empty. The caked-on dust confirms the file boxes hadn’t been open since the moment before they were taped shut in the 1950’s. Preposterous as it sounds, clandestine outdoor germ warfare trials were almost routine during this period. In 1952, the Joint Chiefs of Staff called for a ‘vigorous, well-planned, large-scale [biological warfare] test to the secretary of defense later that year stated, ‘Steps should be take to make certain of adequate facilities are available, including those at Fort Detrick, Dugway Proving Ground, Fort Terry (Plum Island) and an island field testing area.’ Was Plum Island the island field testing area? Indeed, when the Army first scouted Plum Island for its Cold War designs, they charted wind speeds and direction and found that, much to their liking, the prevailing winds blew out to sea.” (Idem.)

16. ?

??One of the participating ‘interested agencies’ was the USDA, which admittedly set up large plots of land throughout the Midwest for airborne anticrop germ spray tests. Fort Detrick’s Special Operations Division ran ‘vulnerability tests’ in which operatives walked around Washington, D.C., and San Francisco with suitcases holding Serratia marcescens—a bacteria recommended to Fort Detrick by Traub’s nominal supervisor, Nazi germ czar and Nuremberg defendant Dr. Kurt Blome. Tiny perforations allowed the germs’ release so they could trace the flow of the germs through airports and bus terminals. Shortly thereafter, eleven elderly men and women checked into hospitals with never-before-seen Serratia marcescens infections. One patient died. Decades later when the germ tests were disclosed, the Army denied responsibility. . . . In the summer of 1966, Special Operations men walked into three New York City subway stations and tossed lightbulbs filled Bacillus subtilis, a benign bacteria, onto the tracks. The subway trains pushed the germs through the entire system and theoretically killed over a million passengers.” (Idem.)

17. “Tests were also run with live, virulent, anti-animal germ agents. Two hog-cholera bombs were exploded at an altitude of 1,500 feet over pigpens set up at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. And turkey feathers laced with Newcastle disease virus were dropped on animals grazing on a University of Wisconsin farm.” (Ibid.; p. 15.)

18. “The Army never fully withdrew its germ warfare efforts against food animals. Two years after the Army gave Plum Island to the USDA—and three years after it told President Eisenhower it had ended all biological warfare against food animals—the Joint Chiefs advised that ‘research on anti-animal agent-munition combinations should’ continue, as well as ‘field testing of anti-food agent munition combinations. . . .’ In November 1957, military intelligence examined the elimination of the food supply of the Sino-Soviet Bloc, right down to the calories required for victory: ‘In order to have a crippling effect on the economy of the USSR, the food and animal crop resources of the USSR would have to be damaged within a single growing season to the extent necessary to reduce the present average daily caloric intake from 2,800 calories to 1,400 calories; i.e., the starvation level. Reduction of food resources to this level, if maintained for twelve months, would produce 20 percent fatalities, and would decrease manual labor performance by 95 percent and clerical and light labor performance by 80 percent.’ At least six outdoor stockyard tests occurred in 1964-65. Simulants were sprayed into stockyards in Fort Worth, Kansas City, St. Paul, Sioux Falls, and Omaha in tests determining how much foot-and-mouth disease virus would be required to destroy the food supply.” (Idem.)

19. “Had the Army commandeered Plum Island for an outdoor trial? Maybe the USDA lent a hand with the trial, as it had done out west by furnishing the large test fields. After all, the Plum Island agreement between the Army and the USDA allowed the Army to borrow the island from the USDA when necessary and in the national interest.” (Idem.)

20. A former employee at Plum Island in the 1950’s has personal recollection of a “Nazi scientist” releasing ticks outdoors on Plum Island. “Traub might have monitored the tests. A source who worked on Plum Island in the 1950’s recalls that animal handlers and a scientist released ticks outdoors on the island. ‘They called him the Nazi scientist, when they came in, in 1951—they were inoculating these ticks,’ and a picture he once saw ‘shows the animal handler pointing to the area on Plum where they released the ticks.’ Dr. Traub’s World War II handiwork consisted of aerial virus sprays developed on Insel Riems and tested over occupied Russia, and of field work for Heinrich Himmler in Turkey. Indeed, his colleagues conducted bug trials by dropping live beetles from planes. An outdoor tick trial would have been de rigueur for Erich Traub.” (Ibid.; pp. 15-16.)

21. Next, the program sets forth the case of Steve Nostrum—an early Lyme Disease victim whose reading of Loftus’ book spurred him to begin inquiring about the Plum Island/Traub connection. “Somebody gave Steve Nostrum a copy of John Loftus’s The Belarus Secret at one of his support group meetings. Steve had long suspected that Plum Island played a role in the evolution of Lyme disease, given the nature of its business and its proximity to Old Lyme, Connecticut. But he never publicly voiced the hunch, fearing a loss of credibility; hard facts and statistics earned him a reputation as a leader in the Lyme disease field. Now in his hands, he had a book written by a Justice Department attorney who not only had appeared on 60 Minutes but also had brought down the secretary general of the United Nations. Nostrum disclosed the possible Plum-Lyme connection on his own television show. He invited local news reporter and Plum Island ombudsman Karl Grossman to help him explore the possibilities in light of the island’s biological mishaps. Asked why he wrote about Loftus’s book in his weekly newspaper column, Grossman says, ‘To let the theory rise or fall. To let the public consider it. And it seemed to me that the author was a Nazi hunter and a reputable attorney—this was not trivial information provided [and it was provided] by some reliable person.’” (Idem.)

22. “In October 1995, Nostrum, fresh off nursing duty (having earned an RN degree to help Lyme disease patients), rushed to a rare public meeting held by the USDA. In a white nurse’s coat, stethoscope still around his neck, Nostrum rose. Trembling, his blond beard now streaked with gray, he clutched his copy of The Belarus Secret as he read the damning passage out loud for the USDA and the public to hear. ‘I don’t know whether this is true,’ he said, looking at the dais. ‘If it is true, there must be an investigation—if it’s not true, then John Loftus needs to be prosecuted.’ People in the audience clapped, and some were astonished. A few gawked, thinking he was nuts. How did the official USDA officials react? ‘If stares could kill, I would have been dead,’ remembers Nostrum.” (Idem.)

23. “Hiding behind the same aloof veil of secrecy they had employed for decades, the USDA brazenly cut him off. ‘There are those who think that little green men are hiding out there,’ the officials responded to Nostrum. ‘But trust us when we say there are no space aliens and no five-legged cows.’ A few laughs erupted in the crowd. ‘It did nothing but detract from what I was saying,’ says Nostrum. ‘But I said it, and I had the documentation to support it.’” (Idem.)

24. The author speculates about the deer and birds that visited Plum Island, and the possibility that some of the infected ticks may well have traveled to the mainland from the island on those vectors. (Carroll explains that white-tailed deer regularly swim the two miles to the island to forage and migrating birds stop on Plum Island on their way North and South during their annual migrations.) “ . . . If Dr. Traub continued his outdoor germ experiments with the Army and experimented with ticks outdoors, the ticks would have made contact with mice, deer, and more than 140 species of wild birds known to frequent and nest on Plum Island. The birds spread their toxic cargo to resting and nesting perches atop the great elms and oaks of Old Lyme and elsewhere, just like they spread the West Nile virus throughout the United States.” (Ibid.; p. 21.)

25. After noting that allegations of the discovery of Bb (the bacterium that causes Lyme Disease) in the late 1940’s coincides with Traub’s arrival on the island, the broadcast sets forth the denials by a USDA spokesperson that there was any BW/Traub/Plum Island link to the spread of the Lyme infection. Note that Scientific American dismissed the possibility of a “Nazi scientist” link to Plum Island. In FTR#240—part of the long FTR series about “German Corporate Control over American Media”–it was noted that the Von Holtzbrinck firm controls that magazine. Like its larger competitor Bertelsmann, the Von Holtzbrinck firm is rooted firmly in the Third Reich. In FTR#226, we examined the Nazi heritage of Von Holtzbrinck and the possibility that they may employed the notorious SS officer and Goebbels protégé Werner Naumann. The possibility that the Von Holtzbrinck/Scientific American link may have had something to do with the magazine’s casual dismissal of the Traub/Plum/Lyme link is not one to be too readily dismissed. “Researchers trying to prove that Lyme disease existed before 1975 claim to have isolated Bb [the bacterium that causes the infection] in ticks collected on nearby Shelter Island and Long Island in the late 1940’s. That timing coincides with both Erich Traub’s arrival in the United States on Project PAPERCLIP and the Army’s selection of Plum Island as its offshore biological warfare laboratory. The USDA’s spokesperson, Sandy Miller Hays, is unconvinced about the possibility of a link between Lyme disease and Plum Island: . . . A PR expert, Hays had Scientific American eating out of her hand in June 2000, when they reported her as saying, ‘ ‘We still get asked about the Nazi scientists,’ . . . [with] the slightest trace of weariness creeping into her voice.’ In their feature story on Plum Island, the prestigious magazine dubbed the intrigue surrounding the island as a ‘fanciful fictional tapestry.’” (Ibid.; pp. 21-22.)

26. The program concludes with examination of Plum Island’s work with the “Lone Star Tick”—native to Texas. The focal point of experimentation on Plum Island in the 1970’s, the Lone Star tick—like Lyme Disease–is now spread throughout New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. How did that happen? “ . . . The lab chief [Dr. Charles Mebus] failed to mention that Plum Island also worked on ‘hard ticks,’ a crucial distinction. A long overlooked document, obtained from the files of an investigation by the office of former Long Island Congressman Thomas Downey, sheds new light on the second, more damning connection to Lyme disease. A USDA 1978 internal research document titled ‘African Swine Fever’ notes that in 1975 and 1976, contemporaneous with the strange outbreak in Old Lyme, Connecticut, ‘the adult and nymphal stages of Abylomma americanum and Abylomma cajunense were found to be incapable of harboring and transmitting African swine fever virus.’ In laymen’s terms, Plum Island was experimenting with the Lone Star tick and the Cayenne tick—feeding them on viruses and testing them on pigs—during the ground zero year of Lyme disease. They did not transmit African swine fever to pigs, said the document, but they might have transmitted Bb to researchers or to the island’s vectors. The Lone Star tick, named after the white star on the back of the female, is a hard tick; along with its cousin, the deer tick, it is a culprit in the spread of Lyme disease. Interestingly, at that time, the Lone Star tick’s habitat was confined to Texas. Today, however, it is endemic throughout New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey. And no one can really explain how it migrated all the way from Texas. . . .” (Ibid.; pp. 24-25.)

Discussion

6 comments for “FTR #480 Plum Island, Lyme Disease and the Erich Traub File”

  1. Recently become amazed on the history of Lyme, other tick-borne illnesses, and tin-hat experiments during the World Wars. Would love to get my hands on the audio, however, can’t seem to download the RealAudio. Can you please check the link and perhaps re-upload? Many thanks.

    Posted by Chillis | September 9, 2013, 7:01 pm
  2. @Chillis–

    Try the MP3 file: http://emory.kfjc.org/archive/ftr/400_499/f-480.mp3

    All of the programs have MP3 files in the audio category, accessible at the top of the front page.

    Best,

    Dave

    Posted by Dave Emory | September 9, 2013, 7:51 pm
  3. I was bitten by a tick in October of 1972. I was 17 and developed the symptoms of Lymes. I am 59 today and I am now disabled. I live near Shreveport Louisiana. This is the same place I was bit. It was not until 1983 that my mom who was a nurse figured out it was Lyme.

    Posted by Janet | June 17, 2015, 7:53 am
  4. I received Lymerix and have chronic reactive arthritis ever since. Do you have access or know where I can access original documents?

    Posted by Andrea Woodruff | June 17, 2016, 4:30 am
  5. @Andrea Woodruff–

    Not offhand. I’d file a Freedom of Information action to see what documentation can be received about Plum Island.

    This will NOT be an easy road but it’s the best thing I can think of.

    I am assuming that your interest is in acquiring documentation about possible Plum Island/DOD experimentation with the relevant pathogens.

    There may be other archives that have already obtained original documents in this regard. The discussion of Lyme Disease as a possible biological weapon has garnered a lot of interest in the growing community of Lyme disease sufferers and care givers. They may be of some assistance.

    Best,

    Dave

    Posted by Dave Emory | June 17, 2016, 2:44 pm
  6. Unearths New Mystery about Lyme Disease

    Discovery sparks questions about factors that may make ailment harder to cure or lead to misdiagnosis

    By Charles Piller, STAT on October 13, 2016

    The tick hunter was hopeful he had found the cause of the disabling illness, recently named Lyme disease, that was spreading anxiety through leafy communities east of New York City. At a government lab in Montana, Willy Burgdorfer typed a letter to a colleague, reporting that blood from Lyme patients showed “very strong reactions” on a test for an obscure, tick-borne bacterium. He called it the “Swiss Agent.”

    But further studies raised doubts about whether he had the right culprit, and 18 months later, in 1981, Burgdorfer instead pinned Lyme on another microbe. The Swiss Agent test results were forgotten.

    Now STAT has obtained those documents, including some discovered in boxes of Burgdorfer’s personal papers found in his garage after his death in 2014. The papers—including letters to collaborators, lab records, and blood test results—indicate that the Swiss Agent was infecting people in Connecticut and Long Island in the late 1970s.

    And scientists who worked with Burgdorfer, and reviewed key portions of the documents at STAT’s request, said the bacteria might still be sickening an unknown number of Americans today.

    While the evidence is hardly conclusive, patients and doctors might be mistaking under-the-radar Swiss Agent infections for Lyme, the infectious disease specialists said. Or the bacteria could be co-infecting some Lyme patients, exacerbating symptoms and complicating their treatment—and even stoking a bitter debate about whether Lyme often becomes a persistent and serious illness.

    Swiss Agent, now called Rickettsia helvetica, is likely not a major health risk in the United States, in part because such bacteria typically respond to antibiotics. Still, several of Burgdorfer’s former colleagues called for infectious disease researchers to mount a search for the bacterium.

    “It should be done,” said Jorge Benach, a professor emeritus at Stony Brook University and a coauthor of Burgdorfer’s seminal 1982 paper describing the detection of the Lyme microbe. Public health concerns warrant a new study, Benach said, and with today’s more advanced “weaponry for pathogen discovery, it would make perfect sense.”

    Dr. Paul Mead, chief of epidemiology and surveillance for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Lyme disease program, said that he wasn’t familiar with Rickettsia helvetica, but that “new tick-borne pathogens could certainly be out there.” He cited several found in the years since Lyme’s cause was discovered. Any serious, common co-infection would usually, but not always, be noticed by physicians as a distinct problem in Lyme endemic areas, he said.

    In Europe and Asia, Rickettsia helvetica has been recognized as a relatively rare but sometimes serious health threat if untreated. It’s been linked to a handful of sudden deaths from heart disease, as well as facial palsy, deafness, meningitis, chronic muscle weakness, and temporary paralysis. But US laboratories don’t test for the Swiss Agent.

    STAT was approached with Burgdorfer’s archives by Kris Newby, who is writing a biography of Burgdorfer and produced an award-winning documentary that sympathetically depicts Lyme patients and doctors who challenged the medical establishment over its approach to Lyme diagnosis and treatment.

    The documents offer a tantalizing glimpse into how disease detectives tracked down Lyme’s cause—and how potentially significant loose ends can sometimes be dropped by researchers pressed for time and funding or diverted by more promising leads.

    They show that Burgdorfer intended to look more deeply into the Swiss Agent, which he had discovered in 1978 in Switzerland, but never did. His former colleagues speculate that he set aside this research to focus on identifying the cause of Lyme. When the Swiss Agent turned out to be an unlikely candidate after all, he redeployed his limited time and resources to other prospects.

    But the papers suggest that he might have gone to his grave harboring regret that he didn’t follow up on the Swiss Agent findings, as reasonable as the decision was, Benach said.

    On the top of a stack of documents in his garage was a mysterious note, penned boldly in red ink in the scientist’s unmistakable handwriting. “I wondered why somebody didn’t do something,” it said. “Then I realized that I am somebody.”

    The Lyme wars

    Lyme has now become one of the most common infectious diseases in the United States—it’s been found in every state except Hawaii, and is rampant in the Northeast and parts of the Midwest. The CDC estimates that 329,000 people are infected annually.

    Lyme has also provoked what’s often described as a “war” over diagnosis and treatment. If Rickettsia helvetica is in the United States, some experts consulted by STAT said, unrecognized infections might be one of several factors contributing to the controversy, by creating confusion over the cause of some patients’ illnesses.

    The Infectious Diseases Society of America, the CDC, and many doctors view Lyme as generally easy to diagnose with its characteristic “bulls-eye” rash and pinpoint lab tests, and easy to cure with two-to-four weeks of antibiotics. If the disease is not diagnosed and treated early—in up to 30 percent of cases, there is no rash—patients can develop longer-lasting and more serious symptoms. But most infectious disease doctors say a short course of antibiotics will cure those patients.

    But an insurgency of renegade doctors and patients disagrees. They argue that the diagnosis is frequently missed because of poor lab tests and other factors, and that Lyme becomes a chronic condition when untreated or inadequately treated. The patients describe symptoms that include incapacitating “brain fog” and weakness, intense anxiety, severe muscle pain, and paralyzing headaches. Many say that they required treatment with antibiotics lasting months or longer to be cured after years of misery.

    Although the few small clinical trials that have examined long-term antibiotic therapy up to 90 days have shown few if any clear benefits, this camp has gained a passionate following, including a cadre of researchers who publish papers supporting this alternative view, and a medical group—the International Lyme and Associated Diseases Society.

    The medical establishment mostly views “chronic Lyme” as the product of quack doctors exploiting desperate patients by offering unproven therapies. The patients sometimes need psychiatric care, these experts say, but in any case, chronic physical complaints are not caused by an active Lyme infection. Some state medical boards have gone so far as to revoke licenses of doctors who prescribe long-term antibiotics.

    It’s hard to overstate the animosity that characterizes this clash. A few angry patients have compared establishment Lyme experts—including Dr. Allen Steere, who collaborated with Burgdorfer and has received death threats—to the Nazi doctor Joseph Mengele.

    How might the Swiss Agent add fuel to this conflict? Steere, a Massachusetts General Hospital researcher and among the world’s leading Lyme experts, said some patients who believe they have Lyme, but who test negative for the infection, might be suffering from an illness caused by one of several other microbes. Rickettsia helvetica could be among them, he said.

    Ticks often carry more than one pathogen, so patients can also have co-infections along with Lyme, which frequently begin with similar symptoms, such as fever, neck stiffness, and headaches.

    “You can’t tell them apart clinically” in the first several weeks, Steere said. Co-infections can cause “more severe early disease … a phenomenon of the summer, when the tick bites.” Longer term, the confusion would not last because of Lyme’s distinct symptoms, even if the infection were untreated, he added.

    Other experts noted that Lyme and Rickettsia helvetica have co-infected patients in Europe. Antibiotics normally cure Rickettsia helvetica infections, but diagnosis can prove difficult because the microbe does not cause a rash. If untreated or inadequately treated, the two infections share overlapping, serious, and sometimes persistent symptoms, according to clinical researchers. These include debilitating fatigue, severe headaches, muscle weakness, meningitis, facial paralysis, and sarcoidosis—a chronic inflammatory disease that can cause lung and skin problems. Numerous studies have linked Rickettsia helvetica to such ailments, although it is not regarded as a major public health peril in Europe.

    Andrew Main, who conducted Lyme research at Yale University in collaboration with Steere and Burgdorfer, had Lyme early on, before its cause was discovered, and was among patients who showed evidence of co-infection with the Swiss Agent—a result that was included in Burgdorfer’s papers but that Main knew nothing about until informed by STAT. The positive tests for the Swiss Agent among Lyme patients back then, he said, strongly support the idea that it might be a current threat.

    Robert Lane, a University of California, Berkeley, medical entomologist and Lyme expert who worked closely with Burgdorfer, is respected by both sides in the Lyme wars. He said Rickettsia helvetica could be a significant hidden factor that worsens Lyme infections and makes them harder to cure.

    “You would want to look at it both ways. Could that organism, if present in some of the Lyme-disease endemic areas, infect people and cause clinical illness on its own, or react in concert with (the microbe that causes Lyme) or some of the other agents,” Lane said. “If you are looking for one or a few agents in a tick, you may be overlooking others that contribute to the disease burden.”

    Finding the Swiss Agent

    The man who found Lyme’s cause devoted his career to studying creatures sometimes described as tiny living cesspools, for the infectious stew of microbes ticks carry and transmit while sucking blood from animals or people.

    While training for his PhD in his native Basel, Switzerland, Burgdorfer became a preeminent “tick surgeon,” as he called himself—dissecting thousands with eye scalpels and Swiss watchmaker forceps. In 1951 he became a research fellow at the federal Rocky Mountain Laboratories, a remote outpost in Montana’s breathtaking Bitterroot Valley that specializes in infectious agents.

    Burgdorfer fell in love with the Bitterroot and with Gertrude Dale See—a secretary and technician at the lab. She won the multilingual scientist’s heart with her ability to speak French. They married and had two sons, and Burgdorfer became a US citizen and permanent lab employee.

    He rose to lead the work on Rickettsia, rod-shaped bacteria spread by ticks that cause ailments such as Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever—which is sometimes deadly for patients in New England as well as the West. Burgdorfer built a global reputation for his knowledge of Rickettsia and Borrelia—corkscrew-shaped “spirochete” bacteria known for causing syphilis.

    On a trip back to Switzerland in 1978, Burgdorfer and a few colleagues discovered in local ticks the previously unknown Swiss Agent—later named Rickettsia helvetica (from Switzerland’s ancient Latin name, Helvetia). He found the microbe infectious for meadow voles—a small rodent common in Europe and the United States—and deadly to chicken embryos. No one knew then that it also caused illnesses in people.

    Burgdorfer returned with samples of infected ticks and Swiss Agent antigen, molecules from the bacterium that can provoke an immune response, for further study. When mixed with blood sera—a part of the blood that doesn’t contain blood cells—the antigen can show whether a person has been infected.

    By then, Steere, a young Yale professor, had for several years been aggressively investigating why some of his patients in Lyme, Conn., were reporting serious and strange symptoms of an apparently new illness. He had found “that many patients suffered not only of arthritis, but also of disorders affecting the skin, muscular, cardiac, and nervous systems,” Burgdorfer told his official biographer from the National Institutes of Health in 2001.

    Steere asked Burgdorfer to join the hunt for a tick-borne microbe believed to be at the heart of Lyme. He sent samples of his patients’ blood sera to Rocky Mountain Laboratories for analysis.

    Sera tests showed that at least a dozen Lyme patients had been infected with Swiss Agent, and that at least six others might have been infected. The records did not make clear how many Lyme patients had been tested overall. Burgdorfer told Steere and other colleagues that the results pointed to a potential cause of Lyme.

    Steere sensed a breakthrough. “I am excited to pursue further the possibility of a rickettsial etiology of Lyme disease,” he wrote to another researcher.

    Burgdorfer was encouraged, in part, because of the test’s specificity: A positive result strongly suggested that the person had been infected with the Swiss Agent and not a different Rickettsia such as the one that causes Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.

    But when a second test method showed inconsistencies, doubts crept in about whether Swiss Agent was linked to Lyme. About 18 months later, Burgdorfer broke through, providing a rare undisputed fact in what would become the most disputatious of diseases: A spirochete causes Lyme. Years later, the microbe was named in his honor, Borrelia burgdorferi.

    But he hadn’t given up on Swiss Agent completely.

    In the lab during this period, Burgdorfer infected US ticks with the Swiss Agent, his lab books show. The records don’t state his experimental goal, but Rocky Mountain Lab scientists often studied which animals and arthropods could be infected with different agents, and thus might be reservoirs or vectors for disease. He also looked for Rickettsia in ticks in Lyme-endemic areas and found dozens of examples, but often neglected to determine the specific rickettsial species.

    In December 1981, just a few months after discovering the Lyme spirochete, he wrote to a Swiss colleague who was overseeing a young investigator’s defense of his PhD thesis concerning the Swiss Agent. Burgdorfer suggested this question: “Do you feel that ‘Rickettsia suisse’ is the etiologic agent of (Lyme)? If so, how would you go about proving this?”

    Burgdorfer and his colleagues reported their discovery of the cause of Lyme in the journal Science in 1982. In a handwritten draft found among Burgdorfer’s papers, he described identifying Rickettsia in Lyme patients’ sera and ticks, and his efforts to rule out Rickettsia as the cause of Lyme—without naming the Swiss Agent.

    But in the final Science article, he made no mention of Rickettsia. Not a word about possibly finding the Swiss Agent in this country has ever been published.

    Finishing the hunt

    Burgdorfer retired in 1986 at age 60, just a few years after the successful Lyme hunt put him at the pinnacle of his field.

    “I started to realize that the research I used to do and was successful in doing has changed its character,” he explained to a National Institutes of Health biographer in 2001. “Molecular and genetic biology have replaced the technologies I was able to apply,” he said. “Since I had no basic training in these fields … I was unable to speak and understand the completely new language.”

    Those fluent in the “new language” of molecular biology and genetics will be able to finish Burgdorfer’s work, experts said. If the Swiss Agent is here, they can find it.

    The CDC’s Mead said his agency is using molecular techniques to look for evidence of bacteria in 30,000 sera samples from people suspected to have contracted tick-borne illnesses. If Rickettsia helvetica is in some of the samples, it probably will be found, he said. That process will taken several more years to complete.

    Dr. W. Ian Lipkin, who directs the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University, is hunting for viruses as well as bacteria living in ticks that spread Lyme, partly to understand why antibiotics sometimes fail in apparent Lyme cases.

    Lipkin’s group has collected 5,000 ticks from New York and Connecticut. With funding from the Steven and Alexandra Cohen Foundation, he has so far identified 20 new viruses in these ticks, and is exploring whether they have caused harmful infections in people, using tests that can search for a wide range of tick pathogens in a single sera sample. Eventually, Lipkin said, this process could make the tests affordable on a mass scale.

    “Everyone wants to get to the bottom of this,” Lipkin said. “All of this is critical to … finding out why some people respond to antibiotics and some people don’t, and whether or not the antibiotics being used are appropriate, and trying to find ways to link different bacteria and different viruses to different syndromes.”

    Lipkin is seeking funds to expand the work to tick-borne bacteria, including Rickettsia.

    Asked whether his methods could find evidence of infections with the Swiss Agent, Lipkin replied without hesitation. “The answer is yes,” he said. “If this particular rickettsial species is present, I’m sure we will see it.”

    Willy’s last words

    After he retired, Burgdorfer sent most of his voluminous personal files to the National Archives in Washington, D.C., where they were cataloged for public viewing. Those records contained some Swiss Agent documents. Many more lay untouched for decades in his garage and home office in Hamilton, Mont.

    Late in life, Burgdorfer developed Parkinson’s disease and became increasingly infirm. A friend listened to his fears that his garage files might be lost to history. She urged Burgdorfer to contact Ron Lindorf, then an entrepreneur and business professor at Brigham Young University, who had been suggested by colleagues.

    Early one morning in June 2014, an agitated Burgdorfer called Lindorf with an urgent request: “Come to Montana and get all my research, my files. I want to put it on the internet so people can see it,” Lindorf recalled him saying.

    Lindorf was not a professional archivist, but agreed: His children had suffered from serious bouts of Lyme disease, he was eager to help the scientist who discovered Lyme’s cause, and he had the ability to take on the complex job. The next month Lindorf arrived in Hamilton, departing two days later with his SUV packed full of old files. That November, Burgdorfer died.

    To better understand the Burgdorfer archive, Lindorf began collaborating with Newby, producer of “Under Our Skin,” the Lyme documentary. She shared the documents with STAT, hoping that an independent report would illuminate a possibly hidden risk for Lyme patients and others.

    Lindorf returned to Montana last year to visit Burgdorfer’s second wife. She pointed across the garage to some additional boxes. Inside a cardboard portfolio covered in flowery fabric and closed by a metal clasp, he found more of the Swiss Agent archives, topped by Burgdorfer’s “I wondered why somebody didn’t do something” note.

    “It made the hairs on the back of my neck stick up,” Lindorf said. “It felt like Willy talking from the grave.”

    Republished with permission from STAT. This article originally appeared on October 12, 2016

    Posted by Roger Stoned | October 20, 2016, 4:23 pm

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