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IDSA COMMENT

Dengue: A Germ with Weapon Potential

October 19, 2006

In May 2002, the then US Undersecretary of State for Arms Control, John Bolton, in his speech at the Heritage Foundation had accused Cuba of having a limited offensive biological warfare programme. But a cursory examination of history shows that the Cubans were in fact 'victims' of American 'germ' attacks in the past.

Between the 1960s and 1990s, Cuba has been subjected to an enormous number of outbreaks of human and crop diseases, which are difficult to attribute purely to natural causes. In the backdrop of the recent pandemic of Dengue in India and its neighbourhood, it would be of interest to note that during 1981 Cuba was in the grip of Dengue, which was probably intentionally spread by the Americans. Naturally, such accusations mostly emerge from the victim country and it is not necessary that the complainant should always be correct in its assessment.

However, Cuba had a reason to point a finger at the United States. Cuban officials felt that there was enough circumstantial evidence available to prove their contention. During the 1960s, the United States intentionally attacked Cuban agriculture many times. According to a Washington Post report of September 16, 1977, the CIA had maintained an "anticrop warfare" programme. In 1970 the CIA engineered the introduction of African swine fever into Cuba, which killed more than a half million pigs. Subsequently, The Guardian and a few other Western newspapers reported extensively on these operations. Thus, in short, there was a history of US usage of agriculture/biological weapons against Cuba.

Moreover, in the spring and summer of 1981, the Cubans found themselves facing an unprecedented epidemic of hemorrhagic Dengue fever. The epidemic, which had hit Cuba in May 1981, generated serious suspicions about American involvement because the country did not have much of a history of major Dengue outbreaks (except for 1944 and 1977). But suddenly between May and October 1981 there were more than three lakh reported cases and 158 fatalities. At the peak of the epidemic, more than 10,000 cases per day were being reported.

Experts say that diseases like Dengue are ideal as biological warfare weapons for many reasons. First, Dengue is highly incapacitating and it can be transmitted easily through the introduction of infected mosquitoes. Second, it spreads rapidly and hence, as a weapon, it can cover a larger target area. Third, the Dengue mosquito bites during the day when people are more active and less protected; moreover, under favourable wind conditions, these mosquitoes can travel hundreds of miles. In such cases, population density and hygiene conditions also become instrumental in deciding the extent to which the disease spreads. Lastly, since dengue fever is found in nature very easily in many parts of the world, a human role in its spread is hard to detect thus enabling an attacker to easily hide its role.

Many technical reports indicated the probability that the 1981 Cuba epidemic had been artificially induced. It had begun at three different localities at once, which is highly unusual in a natural outbreak. None of the victims from these localities had a history of travel to a Dengue-infected place. Wind conditions at that time were not favourable for mosquitoes to travel the distances involved within that short time. And, most importantly, the fever had spread at an astonishingly and theoretically unimaginable rate.

Furthermore, technically the Americans were capable of using Dengue as a biological weapon. In fact, laboratory manufactures of Dengue fever variations were the focus of much experimentation at the US Army's Biological Warfare test facility at Fort Dietrick, Maryland, prior to the 'ban' on such research in 1972.

Interestingly, in India in the year 1975 a decision was taken by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to close down a US sponsored mosquito research project. As a part of the project, a massive release of "Aedes aegypti" mosquitoes (they transmit yellow and dengue fevers) in Sonepat district in Haryana was planned. The aim was to understand mosquito biting habits and a few other details. The then Indian government had taken the decision to scrap this project fearing that the Americans may be interested in testing their biological weapons under the grab of this experiment. This decision was vindicated when the US Defence Department declassified documents listing 46 secret biological and chemical weapons tests conducted at the height of the Cold War. And one of these was a similar project on Baker Island in the South Pacific as part of the biological weapons research programme. In one such trial, codenamed Magic Sword, Aedes aegypti mosquitoes were released off the coast of Baker Island to obtain information on mosquito biting habits, mosquito trap technology and operational and logistical problems associated with the delivery of mosquitoes to remote sites.

As pointed out earlier, the Sonepat project had similar aims. Moreover, the experiment was planned on a very large scale, designed to release hundreds of thousands of mosquitoes reared at a special facility in New Delhi which had been built with funds from the US Public Health Service routed through the World Health Organization (WHO). Significantly, different standards were employed by the US for the Baker Island and Sonepat experiments. Baker Island was uninhabited and distant from the mainland, the trial was conducted with the help of informed volunteers and the mosquitoes were eradicated at the end of the trial. No such plans existed for thickly populated Sonepat and even the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) was unaware of the real intent behind this experiment.

However, experimentation with Dengue should not be treated as simply a relic of the past. In 2001, British researchers pled guilty to charges that they improperly handled a genetically engineered hybrid of the viruses causing hepatitis C and dengue fever. These researchers, under unsafe laboratory conditions, deliberately created 'Dengatitis' during their experimentation for a vaccine for hepatitis C. Luckily, no spread of infection was noticed in spite of a variant of Dengue being in the air over a limited area for some time.

All the above mentioned facts corroborate the observation that is normally made about biological weapons that it is difficult to identify the usage of biological weapon until and unless the predator announces it; otherwise a pandemic would always be identified as a vagary of nature. During the last few decades, particularly after the 1972 Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention came into force, Biological Weapons have generally come to be perceived as history. Even their use by terrorist organisations has been rated as minuscule. However, during the last few years, South and Southeastern parts of Asia have witnessed major disease spreads like SARS and bird flu. The recent outbreaks of Dengue in countries like India and Pakistan are indicative of the fact that the region may remain in 'health turmoil'. The need of the hour is to strengthen the public health infrastructure, which is the best way to handle 'health disasters' irrespective of whether these are manmade or natural outbreaks.