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House passes amendment ordering Pentagon to review whether U.S. experimented with weaponizing ticks

It's typical for lawmakers to offer amendments to the sweeping National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the defense spending bill that is reauthorized every term, and this year has been no different. One of the more unusual amendments is one offered by New Jersey Republican Rep. Chris Smith to order the Pentagon inspector general to conduct a review about whether the military experimented with making ticks into biological weapons.

The amendment, passed by the House last week by a voice vote, would require the Pentagon inspector general to examine "whether the Department of Defense experimented with ticks and other insects regarding its use as a biological weapon between the years of 1950 and 1975." 

"My amendment tasks the DOD inspector general to ask the hard questions and report back," Smith said on the House floor Friday. During the debate on his amendment, Smith said the investigation would explore the following questions:

  •   What were the parameters of the program?
  •   Who ordered it?
  •   Was there ever any accidental release anywhere or at any time of any diseased ticks?
  •   Were any ticks released by design?
  •   Did the program contribute to the disease burden?
  •   Could any of this information help current-day researchers find a way to mitigate these diseases?

The theory, which sounds like something straight out of a science fiction novel, contends that bioweapon specialists packed ticks with pathogens that could cause severe disabilities, disease and death among potential enemies to the homeland. Smith said he was inspired to add the amendment to the annual defense bill by "a number of books and articles suggesting that significant research had been done at U.S. government facilities including Fort Detrick, Maryland and Plum Island, New York to turn ticks and other insects into bioweapons."

Those books, however, have been questioned by some experts who dismiss long-held conspiracy theories that the federal government aided the spread of tick-borne diseases, and federal agencies, including the CDC, may have participated in a cover-up of sorts to conceal findings about the spread of Lyme disease. 

Smith has been a fierce advocate of raising awareness about Lyme disease and increasing prevention efforts. Smith, the co-chair of the House Lyme Disease Caucus, earlier this year introduced the "Ticks: Identify, Control, and Knockout Act'' (TICK Act), a bill to come up with a national strategy to fight Lyme disease. If passed, the measure would authorize an additional $180 million to boost funding for Lyme disease research, prevention and treatment programs.

The CDC currently spends about $11 million on Lyme disease research. 

It remains to be seen whether Smith's tick amendment will make it into the final defense spending measure. Both the House and Senate have passed their own versions, and soon, representatives from both the House and Senate will meet in conference committee to reconcile the two bills.

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