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While Brazil Was Eradicating Zika Mosquitoes, America Made Them Into Weapons

Published: June 25, 2016
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Source: Cryptogon

Source: Atlas Obscura

In the 1950s, while in South America military-like brigades were hunting down Aedes aegypti, in the United States, the Army was falling in love with the same mosquito.

At Fort Detrick, the military’s biological weapons base in Maryland, in great secret, Army scientists were considering how fleas, grasshoppers, and mosquitoes might be deployed against the Communist threat. These insects were harder to protect against than gas— masks wouldn’t help. The threat they posed would last, as long as a population of insects remained alive. Plus, it would be very difficult to pin an insect-borne attack on the U.S.

Among these possible insect soldiers, A. aegypti was “the golden child,” writes Jeffrey A. Lockwood, in Six-Legged Soldiers, because the disease it carried, yellow fever was so terrible. The Army Chemical Corps, in a 1959 report, notes that yellow fever is “highly dangerous” and that “since 1900, one-third of patients have died.” There were parts of the Soviet Union that had never been exposed to the disease, which made them vulnerable, but which had the right climate to support mosquitoes. The Chemical Corps started to experiment with how a brigade of A. aegypti might be deployed and what sort of damage they might do.

Even now, there’s a limited amount of public information about these experiments, and much of what’s known comes from one Chemical Corps report published in 1960. Mostly, though, it seems that Army mosquito researchers were raising hordes of insects and releasing them in different situations. In 1956, looking to see how quickly and how well A. aegypti could penetrate houses and spread through the area, the Chemical Corps released a fleet of uninfected female mosquitos in a residential area of Savannah, Georgia, and collected data from locals on how often they had been bitten. (There’s no information about which neighborhood was afflicted; apparently the Corps had the “co-operation of people in the neighborhood,” although it’s not clear they knew they were part of an experiment.) That same year, the Corps started experiments in Avon Park, in Florida. They would load hundreds of thousands of mosquitos into planes and, later, helicopters, then drop them over the field and see how far they could spread.

The mosquitoes apparently performed well enough: By 1960, the Chemical Corps was producing 500,000 A. aegypti every month, rearing them on sugar water and blood and letting them lay their eggs on paper towels. Scientists had found they could infect a new generation of mosquitoes with yellow fever by mixing the virus in the solution in which the mosquito eggs grew. Hundreds of thousands of mosquitoes were not enough to start a real epidemic, though. The corps proposed constructing a facility in Arkansas that could produce 100 million A. aegypti mosquitoes each week.

It’s unlikely that the Public Health Service knew what the Army was doing—the Army’s program was a closely held secret, and details did not start becoming public until the 1980s. But at the end of the 1950s, the two branches of government were working directly at odds to one another. As the Chemical Corps reports details, in 1957 and 1958, the Army was releasing A. aegypti in Avon Park, in the middle of the Florida peninsula. In those same years, in the Panhandle, the Public Health Service had finally started a pilot program to eradicate A. aegypti in Pensacola, Florida.


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