Scientists Take Scarier Risks in Human Experiments When Society Is Threatened

The following is an excerpt from the new book  Secret Science: A Century of Poison Warfare and Human Experiments  by Ulf Schmidt (Oxford University Press, 2015): 


During times of heightened international tension and armed conflict, scientists and senior officials were more likely to take greater risk with the lives of test subjects to expedite the development of modern weaponry and suspend, for the time being, the key bioethical principles of informed consent and non-maleficence. As I have argued elsewhere, in a perceived or real national emergency ‘concern for human rights and the inviolability of the experimental subjects, be they patients or service personnel, came second to the strategic considerations of most Western governments’. Recent scholarship lends additional support to the argument that ‘war makes actions wholly impermissible during normal times appear more acceptable’, especially to those researchers, as Weiss has argued, for whom the interests of society had higher priority than the health and welfare of the individual. Physician-scientists, who today are morally prohibited from taking part in offensive chemical weapons research, took a leading role in shaping the nature of chemical warfare trials. Their loyalties, whether as military medical scientists or medically qualified soldiers, often conflicted with their professional duty to protect the well-being of participants. In the absence of internationally accepted ethics standards governing human experiments, and conscious of the apparent ambiguity of national ethics rules, military medical experts felt that the exigencies of war justified their ethical decision-making. In this, the safety of human participants was all too often of secondary concern, and their autonomy and right to self-determination was at times severely curtailed. 

Underground Human Trials and Biological Weapons In London

As the risks from bacterial agents, including virulent plague, had been shown to be lower than originally anticipated [in Britain leading up to and following WWII], scientists came under pressure to construct alternative arguments for the continuation of Britain’s biological weapons programme. Identifying new methods and ways in which an enemy might strike, and testing the relative safety of various structures above and below ground against attacks, helped to address the growing resistance of the service departments to resource-intensive field experiments. Special operations trials to assess the vulnerability of Whitehall’s telephone exchange, the Air Ministry Citadel—a large bunker housing various Air Ministry departments and administrative staff during and after the Second World War—and the Treasury building demonstrated that the danger of acts of sabotage with bacterial agents was significant.

Public transport was considered another potential target. Crowded railway carriages in motion posed a particular risk, as biological agents could disperse easily and infect large numbers of people. An initial test in 1953 with an empty train travelling at 40 mph from Salisbury to Exeter revealed that, had there been passengers in the carriages, they all ‘would have received an infective dose if the agent had been pathogenic’, irrespective of where an individual had been seated. Proposals for further trials using the General Post Office cable network and the London Post Office Railway encountered resistance from the Postmaster General, who restricted the areas to be used. Concerns over adverse publicity for underground warfare tests at a time of a general election raised awareness of health and safety issues for postal staff working beneath the streets of London. For civil contingency planners, the trials confirmed the vulnerability of confined spaces to biological attacks, underground, where different transport and tunnel systems interlinked, for example at Trafalgar Square, beneath government offices, and above ground, where commuters went about their daily business. In a 1956 report, Henderson described the findings of the trials as ‘frightening’ and requiring utmost secrecy until further tests had confirmed the results, an assessment echoed by the experts attending the Twelfth Tripartite Conference on Toxicological Warfare, who were gravely ‘disturbed at the threat involved’.

Consequently, sabotage trials were proposed to test the effectiveness of spreading non-pathogenic microorganisms through the ventilation system of the London Underground. Given their level of sensitivity, it was another seven years before Porton was given authority to proceed. At the height of the Cold War, senior scientific advisers, including Cawood, felt distinctly uncomfortable about exposing Londoners to living bacteria, however harmless, since even the smallest breach of secrecy could spell political disaster for the government, domestically and internationally. Others felt that it was simply impossible to conduct ‘large-scale trials in this country with pathogens, and probably not with simulants either’. The imagined threat from various types of attacks simultaneously, however, together with expert assurance that the trials could be performed ‘unobtrusively and without public disturbance’, using agents whose ‘harmlessness’ had been verified, seem to have persuaded Whitehall’s decision makers. What concerned ministers most was not so much the issue of safety, which could be controlled through the use of simulants, or whether a convincing narrative could be constructed, should journalists suspect anything, but the ‘public reaction to the tests’, if they ever became publicly known. In May 1963, the Secretary of State was informed that ‘Ventilation Trials’—the official cover for the tests—would soon commence ‘in great secrecy’.

During this unprecedented covert operation, Porton’s scientists stayed in the background and allowed others to do the work. On 26 July 1963, under the guise of a ‘routine dust-sampling exercise’, unsuspecting London Transport staff released 30 g of Bacillus globigii spores from a small powder box. Preparations had been taken to considerable lengths.To avoid arousing suspicion, Porton staff had added some of the box’s original face powder to the spores to ensure that its mixture would have the right smell.The box was dropped from the window of a moving passenger train on the Northern line south of Waterloo, just as it was travelling north out of Colliers Wood station towards Tooting Broadway. By using the tough and heat resistant B. globigii bacteria that they had obtained from Camp Detrick, the scientists were hoping to simulate a potential attack with deadly anthrax spores. Believed to be harmless at the time, B. globigii bacteria are today ‘considered a pathogen for humans’ with the potential to cause food poisoning, eye infections, bacteraemia (the presence of bacteria in the blood), and septicaemia, especially in humans with compromised immune systems.

The release happened around midday, when most commuters had safely arrived at work, yet unsuspecting passengers, visitors, tourists, those scheduled to come in late for meetings, and workers on late shifts were on board the train that day. Many of them might have heard on the radio about the thousands of people killed in the early hours of that morning in a powerful earthquake which had hit the Yugoslav city of Skopje, the capital of the Republic of Macedonia. It had been a human catastrophe of biblical proportions in which the railway system had been totally destroyed and hospitals were at breaking point. Little would have been further from their mind than that their own city, and the train they were travelling in, had become the stage on which scientists had just launched one of the largest underground dissemination trials ever, to simulate a similar cataclysmic event. Acting as a cloud tracer, the spores were unlikely to have spoilt any of their food, as the test report highlighted. However, without ever having been informed or asked for consent, men, women, and children had all of a sudden become the test subjects in a field trial in which Britain’s scientists had turned the London Underground into a large-scale laboratory. The people were neither known to the experimenters, nor were they ever identified or told of the test at a later stage; they are likely to have remained ignorant of it all their lives. 

Several days later, trainee engineers, who were probably unaware of the military context of the experiment, measured high concentrations of the spores in the stations where the particles had been released; other samples revealed that contamination had spread ‘to a point as far north as Camden Town’. Spores had travelled over 10 miles through the ventilation system. Almost everywhere around London, bacterial spores could be identified, at Charing Cross, Waterloo, Elephant & Castle, Kennington, Bank, Holborn, Oxford Circus, and Tottenham Court Road.They had travelled for miles on the Northern, Bakerloo, Piccadilly, Central, and District lines. Randomly selected coaches on the Northern line were likewise heavily contaminated. A second similar trial was carried out in May 1964—in which B. globigii bacteria and T1 coliphage, a virus simulant, were simultaneously released in the London Underground—and confirmed the previously held belief that ‘long distance travel of aerosols was due to transportation within the trains’ rather than the air ventilation system.

All those in the know agreed that, had this been an attack with highly toxic bacterial or viral agents, within days infection rates among the people of the London metropolis would have been disproportionately high compared to the average infection rates in the capital around this time of the year, possibly leading to panic amongst large sections of society—and there was little that could be done, other than sealing London Underground’s floodgates to prevent further contamination from aerosols. As Carter put it during an interview on BBC Radio 4, in the case of a biological warfare attack the London Underground would have been a ‘dangerous place to be’. For the authorities it was clear that Britain’s capital and other major cities were vulnerable to this type of warfare, findings which accelerated the approval for similar trials in the United States. In 1965, the Chemical Corps’ Special Operations Division (SOD) performed two field experiments with B. globigii bacteria in Washington DC. A year later, the New York City underground system became an experimental site for covert tests in which the same agent was dropped ‘onto the subway roadbed from a rapidly moving train’. While the trials highlighted far-reaching possibilities of exposing urban populations to diseases, the vast majority of the public remained unaware of the risks, nor were the people ever informed of their involvement. In 1999, an official report concluded that the 

"tacit approval for [Britain’s] simulant trials where the public might be exposed was strongly influenced by defence security considerations aimed obviously at restricting public knowledge. An important corollary to this was the need to avoid public alarm and disquiet about the vulnerability of the civil population to BW attack."

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