Biological warfare experiment

Biological warfare experiment in India and the curious case of yellow fever mosquitoes

Print edition : January 29, 2021

A female Aedes aegypti, the mosquito that spreads yellow fever. The Genetic Control of Mosquitoes Unit perfected “mass production techniques” and developed a way to distribute mosquitoes with a gadget on a rickshaw. Photo: James Gathany/AP

The World Health Organisation headquarters, a file photograph. Contrary to the agreement between the WHO and the Indian government, work was done on filarial vector control in a place where the disease was not endemic. Photo: REUTERS

Did mosquito research in India in the 1970s act as a cover for certain U.S. research projects having a bearing on biological warfare?

On July 17, 2020, the well-known civil rights activist and Supreme Court lawyer Nandita Haksar, in an article (“Stranger than fiction: Did the CIA conduct secret mosquito experiments in India in the 1970s?”), posed a question: Is scientific collaboration a “battle between politics for profits and politics for the people?” As the daughter of the late P.N. Haksar, a distinguished bureaucrat, Planning Commission member and Principal Secretary to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi , she was aware of the controversial closing down of the Genetic Control of Mosquitoes Unit (GCMU) under the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR). She says: “It was in this room that I heard many stories of covert operations. That day, a young journalist came by and told my father of a strange experiment with mosquitoes being conducted right near Palam airport, as Delhi airport was then called. The man said it was an experiment on yellow fever. ‘But we don’t have yellow fever in India,’ my father had exclaimed. The journalist said that this was exactly his point. He claimed it was a part of a biological warfare experiment. We all sat in shocked silence.” The journalist, Chakravarthi Raghavan, went on to head the Press Trust of India (PTI). Dr K.S. Jayaraman, who did the investigations, was also no ordinary correspondent. With a PhD in nuclear physics from a university in the United States and journalism as an elective subject, he had resigned his government job as a scientist and joined PTI as its Chief Science Reporter.

The entire story of how the GCMU, established in 1970 by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to study the genetic control of mosquitoes, had to close down in 1975 is now forgotten. The guidelines issued by a committee of learned scientists such as Prof. M.S. Swaminathan and Prof. M.G.K. Menon in 1975 on international scientific collaboration have also been forgotten. As a scientist with the GCMU, and with fading memories today at 91, I would reminisce on what happened .

The funding of the GCMU project was entirely from the PL 480 Funds [Public Law 480 established for U.S. distribution of foreign aid] in rupees left with the U.S. Embassy; it was an all American funding managed by the WHO. It was a lopsided “collaboration” between the two, with the WHO administering through its representative (Dr R. Pal) all aspects of the project and the ICMR paying only the salaries of the Indian staff recruited. There was an agreement between the WHO and the ICMR, and a separate agreement between the WHO and the United States Public Health Service (USPHS); the ICMR was not even aware of it. Nor was the Health Ministry of India. The USPHS took all the policy decisions; a representative from Fort Detrick, the headquarters of the U.S’ biological warfare division, attended the scientific and technical meetings. The aim of the project, according to the agreement with the ICMR, was to investigate the possibilities of using genetic methods to control vectors of malaria and filariasis. But contrary to the spirit of the agreement, no work was done on Anopheles stephensi, the urban malaria vector prevalent in Delhi. Extensive studies, however, were carried out on the filariasis vector Culex quinquifasciatus although there was no filariasis in Delhi. There was also undue emphasis on the work on Aedes aegypti, the dangerous vector of yellow fever though the disease was not prevalent in India. Thus, right from the beginning, the policy was flawed.

First of all, why was Delhi, which was not endemic for either malaria or filariasis, selected for locating the GCMU. The late Dr N.G.S. Raghavan, an authority on filariasis and Director of the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD), was quoted by the Public Accounts Committee of Parliament to have questioned the rationale for locating the centre in Delhi. Was it because of its proximity to the defence establishments? Obviously, the NICD was never consulted. This was surprising since the NICD, the successor to the Malaria Institute of India (MII), was a premier Central government research institute with branches all over India. Moreover, the WHO representative in the GCMU (Dr Pal) and person in charge of all operations was a Malaria Inspector at MII for many years before he joined the WHO even as he kept his lien on his position at the MII. (It may be noted that his lien for more than 10 years was against the rules and it was terminated only in 1975 while an inquiry was held on the GCMU’s work.)

What the GCMU work was all about

The GCMU carried out extensive studies by mass rearing, with automation, of millions of Culex quinquifasciatus (Cq) mosquitoes and chemosterilising supposed-to-be males using the drug thiotepa (and also irradiation). The unit developed a mechanical gadget for separation of males and females at the pupal stage itself. The males were then released in many villages around Delhi. The released males were to compete with indigenous males and mate with the wild females, which in due course would lay sterile eggs. But the ecologists in the project showed that (i) the released males were not competitive in many aspects with the wild males and therefore not able to induce 100 per cent sterility in the wild mosquito population. (ii) The separation of sexes at the pupal stage was not very effective, and the female contamination rate was about 3-5 per cent. That means, at every release, there were thousands of females among the released males, and which bit humans. This is because the sexual dimorphism in the size of the male and female pupae was not very distinct. (iii) Other methods like irradiation were adopted and cytoplasmically incompatible Cq mosquitoes were also released. The latter method developed by a German scientist, Hans Laven, was later found to be a flop as it was shown that the so-called incompatibility was due to the presence of a rickettsial infection and could be cured by treating the animals on which the mosquitoes are fed with tetracycline. (iv) There were, however, noteworthy and extensive field studies on the ecology, behaviour and population dynamics of the filarial mosquito, Culex. (v) Finally, undue emphasis and extensive work was done on Aedes aegypti.

Studies on the yellow fever vector

Why were detailed studies undertaken on the yellow fever vector, Aedes aegypti, when India did not have yellow fever? An unclassified document from the United States Army Chemical Corps in 1960, describing its chemical and biological warfare efforts, revealed: “In 1953, the Biological Warfare (BW) Laboratories in Fort Detrick established a program[me] to study the use of arthropods for spreading anti-personnel BW agents.” The report cited the advantages of using insects and pointed out that “they will remain alive for some time, keeping an area constantly dangerous”. The programme studied the use of Aedes aegypti and the yellow fever virus. During the Cold War era, the obvious target was the Soviet Union. The report noted, “Yellow fever has never occurred in some areas, including Asia, and therefore it is quite probable that the population of these areas would be quite susceptible to the disease.”

Between April and November of 1956, the Corps released uninfected female mosquitoes (Aedes aegypti) in a residential area in Savannah, Georgia. It was learnt that within a day, the mosquitoes had travelled one to two miles and had bitten many people. A 1958 test in the same area confirmed that “mosquitoes could be spread over areas of several miles by means of devices dropped from planes or set up on the ground. And while these tests were made with uninfected mosquitoes, it is a fairly safe assumption that infected mosquitoes could be spread equally well.” Therefore it was significant to note that the GCMU had perfected “mass production techniques” and developed an automatic distribution of Aedes mosquitoes through a gadget mounted on a cycle rickshaw which could go into narrow lanes in a crowded city and release them in clusters.

‘National Herald’ expose

But the seeds for a controversy were laid on February 11, 1972, less than two years after the GCMU started, when National Herald, a national daily from Delhi, published an article “Science or Neo Imperialism” authored by “A scientific Worker”. (It was later revealed that the article was written by a high-ranking defence scientist of Director’s rank, who is now no more.) This created a flutter. The article highlighted that thiotepa, used by the GCMU for sterilisation of mosquitoes, was a carcinogen. Later, Blitz, a weekly tabloid from Bombay, splashed it in the headlines. Surprisingly, at about the same time, German News, a regular publication of the Embassy of Germany in Delhi, published an article by Prof. Hans Laven, who was with the GCMU, advocating the use of his strain of Cq with cytoplasmic incompatibility, supporting the views in National Herald. A panic button was pressed immediately, and it was reported that the Director General of ICMR requested C. Raghavan, the PTI Chief, to send someone to investigate the matter. That is how K.S. Jayaraman entered the scene. He made detailed investigations for 15 months and came out with a report in PTI on July 9, 1974, which was critical of the GCMU’s functioning. Newspapers all over India carried it.

This created a sensation as it involved the WHO. Mainstream quoted Raghavan as saying, “It took us nearly nineteen months of patient investigation, cross checking of all leads, and reading up a great deal of technical material, to understand the ramifications of various foreign-sponsored research activities in the country. Our main effort centred on the work of the Genetic Control of Mosquito Unit (GCMU), an outfit run by the World Health Organisation (WHO) under an agreement with the Health Ministry in the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), and financed by the United States out of PL-480 Funds.” The report further quoted Raghavan as saying, “While it took us fifteen months to put together the story and issue it, it took the Minister just twenty-four hours of reading up on mosquitoes to dub the report ‘tendentious, unfair, and misleading’.”

Parliament on alert

The matter was raised in Parliament, which decided that the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) should investigate the matter. Raghavan said: “It took nine more months of patient inquiry by the PAC before the PTI team was vindicated, and the Health Ministry indicted. In the process of digging up material to help the PAC’s investigation and present a picture of what goes on in this land of ours, we came across so much of material that perhaps would fill a book, and almost read like a thriller.… The obstruction and non-cooperation of the bureaucracy in our attempts to get at the facts did not come as a surprise to us, though my colleague, Dr K.S. Jayaraman, who did all the legwork and reading and researching, was aghast, as a scientist, to find out that in the Health Ministry scientists and doctors could not freely discuss matters even on a scientific level without being afraid of action from the top.” One of the top Indian scientists was also harassed for collaborating with Jayaraman’s inquiry.

For the first time in the parliamentary history of India, an adjournment motion was passed on a subject of biological warfare. As already stated, the PAC, headed by two brilliant parliamentarians, Prof. Hiren Mukerjee (167th Report) and Jyotirmay Basu (200th report), exposed many things going on under the auspices of the WHO and under the garb of international collaboration in India. They exposed the biological warfare angle of the U.S., camouflaged by the USPHS, in the GCMU and how contrary to the agreement between the WHO and the Government of India, work was done not on malaria but on filarial vector control in a place where the disease was not endemic. But the horror of it all was that there was intensive work on Aedes aegypti, the yellow fever and dengue vector, but not a vector of human malaria nor filariasis. Mass rearing of the mosquito, and a perfect mechanism for distribution of Aedes aegypti in every street of a busy city, Sonepat, Haryana, was developed for which a detailed map of every street was made. And just when the operations were about to be launched, the Indian Army moved in. There were many individuals and agencies involved in stopping the operations: Raghavan, Jayaraman, and an unknown entomologist were involved in the operation, with the active support of P.N. Haksar, Ashok Parthasarathy, the then scientific adviser to the Prime Minister, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and the Army bigwigs (including the Chief of Staff). The Chairman of the PAC wrote to the Prime Minister on January 31, 1975 (PAC 225), asking her to set the best intelligence services at her disposal on this and other connected projects. The defence authorities also woke up to the articles in National Herald.

The Haryana government too intervened. On February 17, 1975, it reported to have physically caught hold of a GCMU official on the outskirts of Sonepat when she was there with the paraphernalia and was about to distribute Aedes aegypti in the streets. She was allowed to go only after extracting a promise that no experiments would be conducted in Sonepat without the Haryana government’s specific approval. The Prime Minister then appeared to have intervened and instructed the Health Minister to abandon the project. The GCMU was wound up in June 1975.

Nearly five decades later, as one who was part of the GCMU, I thought it necessary to tell the story so that present-day policy planners and scientists are aware of what really happened, and the pitfalls of international collaboration in science and technology (“Mosquito in the ointment”, Frontline, January 28, 2018).

Was GCMU used for biological warfare?

The PAC did an exhaustive job. It relied also on the reports of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). One former additional Director General of ICMR had also given many references to the PAC on biological warfare. The PAC said the WHO had been used as a cover for certain U.S. research projects in India having a bearing on biological warfare (PAC report 167 para 7.1.4). It upheld the substance of an earlier news report by PTI and charged that these and other connected projects had little utility to India but had biological warfare or other significance. It has been known since the beginning of the twentieth century that India is a country receptive for yellow fever. It has plenty of Aedes aegypti and monkeys which are excellent reservoirs for the yellow fever virus. Aedes aegypti and other species of mosquitoes present in India can spread the virus from monkey to man and from man to man. Despite these ideal conditions, yellow fever has not struck India. India’s vulnerability to a yellow fever biological warfare attack was known to the U.S. and Nazi Germany during the Second World War. Early in 1940 the Government of India had received confidential information from the U.S. that in the event of war breaking out in the Far East, there is the possibility of Japan resorting to biological warfare with the yellow fever virus (C.G. Pandit, Indian Journal of Medical Research, p. 1524). In the autumn of 1939 Goebbels, broadcasting from Munich, accused the British of attempting to introduce yellow fever into India by transporting infected mosquitoes from west Africa and liberating them from aeroplanes over Indian cities, the whole scheme being presided over by a high permanent official of the foreign office (British Medical Journal, Vol.1 (1947), pp.893-895). Shortly before the beginning of the war, an enemy agency actually did attempt to gain possession of a virulent strain of yellow fever virus (ibid). Viewed against this background and the tremendous progress made at Fort Detrick in the development of a biological warfare system, the experiments by USPHS experts in India gave a new dimension to GCMU activities on Aedes aegypti. Furthermore, the USPHS, which sponsored the GCMU, is well known to have maintained a close liaison with Fort Detrick and “receives a few hundred thousand dollars for its efforts” (Steven Ross, p.123).

The U.S. biological warfare laboratory at Fort Detrick had examined over 200 candidates, but the greatest biological warfare interest was attached to a few agents that included the yellow fever virus (SIPRI Vol.II, pp.37-38). Attention was also paid to an aerosolised yellow fever virus (Science, January 13, 1967). As early as 1960 the U.S. germ warfare programme had progressed from concept to feasibility and from basic research to development of a completely new and potentially most effective biological warfare weapon system. This apparently related to a combination of yellow fever virus and Aedes aegypti mosquito (SIPRI Vol.II, p.81). Techniques had been developed for infecting mosquitoes of this species with yellow fever virus and keeping them alive for a month. Research on entomological warfare was highly classified and none of the U.S. congressional briefings ever delved into entomology (Seymour Hersh, p.88).

Mixed reactions

In India the Director General of Health Services (DGHS) admitted that the knowledge gained by the genetic control experiment could certainly be used for putting virus into mosquitoes and starting a focus on a disease like yellow fever (PAC, p. 135-137). In international scientific circles the biological warfare allegations against the WHO-ICMR project produced mixed reactions. New Scientist (October 9, 1975, p. 102) said the allegations were far less ridiculous. It quoted a biological warfare expert as saying that the GCMU data would be useful if one intended a yellow fever attack on India. It said the Indian data might have been useful in finding out why yellow fever had not occurred even though the vectors and monkeys were present. But even the critics admit that the WHO-ICMR project concerned an area where there was an overlap of public health and biological warfare interest. But the biological warfare implications were either ignored (in India) or were not pointed out at all when the project was mooted and many of the scientists became aware of it only after the investigative news report in 1974 and the subsequent PAC report.

There are, however, some pointers suggesting that the project was conceived with biological warfare as the main aim. The Sonepat site for the release of Aedes aegypti was selected by the WHO and the USPHS even before the GCMU formally took shape. Despite objections on scientific grounds from the local institute of health (NICD), the site was not changed (PAC, p.191). The testing of foreign strains of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes for their potential virulence of yellow fever vectors was considered unnecessary by the USPHS and by the WHO virologist (Dr Paul Bres), who (coincidentally?) happened to be a former colonel of the French Army. This is strange in a scientific project like this, particularly when experts had warned that it might be extremely serious if yellow fever were ever introduced in Asia or the Pacific Islands where the disease had never occurred (“Biological and Chemical Warfare policies of the U.S.”, p.411). Also of concern was the unit’s reluctance to change the priority from mosquitoes carrying malaria (problem number one not only in India but throughout the Indian subcontinent and neighbouring areas) to its obsession with studies on Aedes aegypti. It is well known that this species may be playing a beneficial role in the tropics by spreading the flu-like dengue fever which, in turn, protects the population against yellow fever (Max Theiler and W.G. Downs, pp. 442-443; also C.G. Pandit, IJMR, p.1541).

Scientific espionage

Was the mosquito research in India part of a research programme in biological warfare which had been banned by world bodies but not from the minds of elite scientists and politicians? It is hard to say. But where the number of coincidences defies the law of averages they are not random occurrences, and probabilities must go the other way. Scientific espionage in developing countries is easy because scientists and scientific departments in these countries are starved of funds. Many of the key scientific figures have been trained in advanced nations which facilitates establishing contacts with would-be collaborators on a personal level. The inferiority complex and lack of suitable machinery to evaluate foreign-sponsored projects also expose the countries to evil designs of foreigners. Such an evaluation can be made by countries that are scientifically equal, but many developing countries are not in a position to make such an evaluation of foreign projects from security or economic angles, not even from the angle of utility to themselves.

The PAC, after considering the entire gamut of foreign financial or foreign collaborative research, recommended in its report (PAC, 1974, Nos. 167 and 200, pp. 209-210) thus:

“Government should identify a set of scientific or operation areas in which investigations by foreigners or by foreign assisted programmes should be subjected to the most careful and comprehensive scrutiny on a case by case basis before approval is given for the initiation of the project. The scientific areas selected at a particular point of time would need to be defined in the context of the prevalent international situating and advances in science and technology.

“To start with the committee would suggest the following areas: (a) Any and all aspects of oceanography and research related to ocean resources and our coastal areas; (b) any and all aspects relating to meteorology and weather, especially weather modification projects; (c) remote sensing by aircraft and satellites particularly for the assessment of natural resources; (d) areas in biology such as microbiology epidemiology, ecology and virology; (g) all aspects of toxicology of drugs, pesticides and other chemicals; (f) propagation of radio waves including studies aimed at collecting information about the ionosphere and other upper atmosphere layers over our country; (g) any and all scientific investigations in border areas such as ‘Himalayan Geology’.”

Did we learn the lessons?

The government should decide that all proposals for scientific investigations undertaken in these defined areas with the help of or in association with foreign organisations or with foreign monies from any source should be sent by the Ministry, agency laboratory or private institution concerned to a nodal point within the government for a comprehensive review and clearance. “The nodal point should be a high-power committee of scientists headed by the scientific adviser to the Ministry of Defence but include and perhaps ought to include other high security agencies of the government. The committee desires that once this mechanism has been set up it would also review all existing projects or of the type mentioned in preceding paragraph.” But as far as I know, there is no such nodal point in existence, and our various institutions are having, even now, many foreign collaborative projects.

The kind of mechanism suggested by the PAC could at best deal with security and defence angles. But it cannot really deal with internal haemorrhage issue. In any event, unlike India, many developing countries do not even have the necessary scientific talent to assess these issues. Perhaps a solution for Third World countries is to set up their own organisation secretariat or centre staffed by personnel selected for their integrity and ability and societal purpose and use its resources for looking at and advising Third World countries in projects and proposals in the fields of S&T. The United Nations and its specialised agencies could have been the proper places to set up a watchdog agency in liaison with the plans for transfer of S&T to help developing nations consult and assess foreign projects in scientific research. However the U.N. and its agencies like the WHO, structured as of now, are really controlled by the Big Powers.

Dr P.K. Rajagopalan is former Director, Vector Control Research Centre, Pondicherry, Indian Council of Medical Research.

References

1. Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (1973): The Problem of Chemical and Biological Warfare, Vol. I: The Rise of CB Weapons, Vol. II: CB Weapons Today, Stockholm: Almqvist and Wiksell.

2. Hersh, Seymour N. (1968): Chemical and Biological Warfare, London: McGibbon and Keet Ltd.

3. Public Accounts Committee (1974-75) Fifth Lok Sabha, 167th report, and 200th report, “Foreign participation or collaboration in reserve projects in India”, New Delhi: the Lok Sabha Secretariat.

4. Cookson, John and Judith Nottingham (1970): A Survey of Chemical and Biological Warfare, U.S. government publication, London: Sheed and Ward.

 

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