Excerpt from Germs by Judith Miller, et. al., plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Germs

Biological Weapons and America's Secret War

by Judith Miller, et. al.

Germs
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2001, 352 pages
    Paperback:
    Oct 2002, 384 pages

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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.

Copyright © 2001 by Judith Miller, Stephen Engelberg, and William Broad.

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