Lyme disease as war weapon? Inside New Jersey representative's push for probe

ASBURY PARK, N.J. – People suffering from Lyme disease could be closer to knowing whether the chronic illness impacting an estimated 300,000 or more people started off as a U.S. biological weapon.

U.S Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey hopes that knowledge could lead not only to accountability, but also a potential cure and greater recognition of the disease.

"My hope is, this jump-starts a very aggressive effort to find a cure and see how this (Lyme disease) is growing. It’s pushing out into the Great Lakes area. It’s exploding everywhere," said Smith, a longtime advocate for Lyme disease research. His district is one of the hotbeds for the disease.

The House of Representatives added a Smith amendment to a federal defense spending bill that would require the Department of Defense's Inspector General to investigate whether the military, between 1950 and 1975, experimented with ticks and other insects to be used as biological weapons.

US Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ) opens a panel discussion about Lyme disease research held at the Wall Township Municipal building Wednesday, May 29, 2019.

Investigators will report back to the House and Senate Armed Services committees with the scope of any experiment it finds, including whether any ticks or insects were released into the environment, either by accident or on purpose.

The amendment was approved by voice vote. Now the House bill has to be reconciled with a Senate bill that does not include Smith's amendment. Smith is working with senators to ensure the investigation survives the process.

Lyme disease on the rise: What to do if you get a tick bite

More in tick: Ever have a tick? This Kentucky man got one in his eye

Smith's push for the federal investigation began after reading "Bitten: The Secret History of Lyme Disease and Biological Weapons," by Stanford University-based science writer Kris Newby.

A longstanding theory is that Lyme disease was a Soviet-era biological weapon created in a U.S. government research center on Plum Island and released, either accidentally or intentionally.

A book about the history of Lyme disease was referenced by US Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ) before a panel discussion about Lyme disease research held at the Wall Township Municipal building Wednesday, May 29, 2019.

Newby's book, however, advances the theory with an interview with late researcher Willy Burgdorfer, who claimed to have infected the ticks during U.S. military experiments.

"There needs to be significant accountability," Smith said. "This should not be mired in secrecy."

A federal probe could prove or disprove the theory. If the theory is proven correct, it would also give ammunition to individuals with chronic Lyme disease, who often face significant battles in getting treatment because it is not widely recognized by the medical community.

The Infectious Diseases Society of America has declined to recognize chronic Lyme disease in its clinical practice guidelines, leaving sufferers to find "Lyme-friendly" doctors, which is not easy.

Smith said knowing the truth about any experimentation would also help researchers reverse-engineer a cure for the tick-borne illness, which can often be misdiagnosed first as fibromyalgia or other conditions before patients learn they have Lyme disease.

Smith unsuccessfully attempted to add a second amendment to the bill that would have created a Lyme disease "national strategy," a holistic approach for federal agencies to combat the disease.

The national strategy is a part of Smith's TICK Act, federal legislation he has proposed for more than 20 years that would provide $180 million over six years for research.

Follow Susanne Cervenka on Twitter: @scervenka.

This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: Lyme disease a bioweapon? New Jersey rep's call for U.S. probe