Lawmakers are demanding an investigation into an old conspiracy theory that the government weaponized ticks and caused the spread of a debilitating disease that infects an estimated 300,000 Americans each year.
The House of Representatives last week passed by a voice vote an amendment authored by Rep. Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican, to the House's massive defense spending bill authorizing the investigation into the "possible involvement of DOD biowarfare labs in the weaponization of Lyme disease in ticks and other insects."
The amendment directs the inspector general of the Department of Defense to investigate whether the department experimented with ticks and other insects for the use of a possible biological weapon between 1950 and 1975.
If any evidence of an experiment is found, the inspector general is then directed to determine whether any ticks or insects used in the experiment were released — either on purpose or accidentally — into the environment.
Smith said he was inspired to write the amendment by "a number of books and articles suggesting that significant research had been done at US government facilities including Fort Detrick, Maryland, and Plum Island, New York, to turn ticks and other insects into bioweapons."
He also mentioned the new book Bitten: The Secret History of Lyme Disease and Biological Weapons, which suggests that the rise in Lyme disease over the last few decades was a military experiment gone wrong. The book, written by Stanford science writer Kris Newby, includes interviews with Willy Burgdorfer, the man credited with discovering the bacteria that causes Lyme disease.
"Americans have a right to know whether any of this is true," Smith said during debate on the House floor.
But experts say there's no need to investigate because there's no evidence or science to back it up.
"There's definitely better things they should be doing rather than just following up on a conspiracy theory," said Maria Diuk-Wasser, an associate professor of ecology, evolution, and environmental biology at Columbia University. "This is an easy one to debunk."
Lyme disease is caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi. The microbes infect blacklegged ticks, which can transmit the infection to people through a bite.
It is the most common vector-borne disease in the US and can cause a wide range of symptoms, including fever, chills, fatigue, a rash, and muscle and joint aches. If left untreated, the disease can cause more severe joint pain, facial palsy, an irregular heartbeat, and inflammation of the brain and spinal cord, according to the CDC.
Cases of the illness have steadily increased over the last 25 years. In 2017, the CDC received reports of more than 42,000 confirmed or probable cases of the disease, though the agency estimates that around 300,000 people in the US are sickened by the bacteria each year.
The increase in cases, however, is not linked to the release of infected ticks from a lab, scientists told BuzzFeed News.
Gary Wormser, chief of infectious diseases at New York Medical College and founder and director of the Lyme Disease Diagnostic Center, said the theory is "not logical, not reasonable, and not true."
Wormser, who has been researching Lyme since the late 1980s, said the theory, which has also included the myth that the bacteria was created in a US government lab, is one of several myths about Lyme disease that have circulated for years.
"It's just part of the mythology of Lyme disease," Wormser said. "Nobody seems to pay attention to the actual facts."
Diuk-Wasser said research shows the bacteria has been around for tens of thousands of years, adding that if it were true that the government caused widespread disease by releasing infected ticks in New York, then the bacteria wouldn't be found across the US — which it is, by the way.
"It couldn't have spread from the '50s or '60s all over the country. That’s impossible because ticks move very slowly," she said. "We know that the Borrelia that is throughout the whole US has an old origin genetically."
Experts also said ticks, in general, would be poor candidates for biological weapons.
"I don't know that you could really aerosolize it," said Greg Ebel, professor and director of the Arthropod-Borne and Infectious Diseases Laboratory at Colorado State University. "I've never seen any evidence that would make me think that that would be a good choice."
Rather, scientists say, the increase in prevalence of the bacteria and in cases of the diseases is likely due to a combination of factors, including reforestation, suburbanization, and, possibly, climate change.
"Forests have regrown and there are now enormous deer populations — deer populations lead to larger populations of ticks," Ebel told BuzzFeed News.
The House spending bill that the amendment was added to still has to be reconciled with the Senate's version before any investigation moves forward.
But even if the investigation comes to fruition and finds no evidence of the theory, Diuk-Wasser doubted that would satisfy the naysayers.
"I don't think they will believe it. Conspiracies are based on assuming the government will deny these things," she said. "I just find it very odd, honestly, that [lawmakers] would be doing this."