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Research tests faith citizenship { October 5 2003 }

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Research tested faith, citizenship
Soldiers: Decades later, Seventh-day Adventists who volunteered as subjects in a Cold War biological warfare program show no ill effects.

By Scott Shane
Sun Staff
Originally published October 5, 2003

Beliefs and citizenship put to test

It was one of the most bizarre military assignments of the Cold War, and a half-century later James R. Morgan remembers it vividly: He strapped on a face mask, clamped it to a port on the side of a huge Fort Detrick test chamber called "the Eight Ball" and inhaled the germs that would infect him with an exotic disease called Q fever.

"I felt a little difference in the temperature of the air," says Morgan, 71, of Adelphi. "I knew at that moment I'm breathing something that's going to make me sick."

Morgan was a Whitecoat, one of 2,300 Seventh-day Adventist soldiers who found an alternative to combat duty by volunteering as test subjects in the U.S. biological warfare program between 1954 and 1973.

"It seemed a choice that was loyal both to the Army and to our church," says Morgan, a retired gas station operator and auto mechanics teacher, and grandfather of seven. "Our church leaders recommended it as a good option."

On the advice of a fellow guinea pig, Morgan guzzled lots of water after the Q fever test and experienced only a mild flu. Some of his friends were not so lucky. "It was like a cartoon I remember: 'With a little luck, I'll be dead by morning,' " he says.

To this day, most Whitecoats are proud that they found a way to serve without violating the Adventists' strong religious convictions against killing. If there's any resentment, it comes from a sense that they were lured into testing offensive germ weapons and not just defensive vaccines.

Morgan and 150 other veterans of Operation Whitecoat gathered in Frederick this weekend for a reunion that included prayers, reminiscences and a briefing by a Fort Detrick researcher who surveyed the health of the test subjects.

Some also attended yesterday's celebration of the 60th anniversary of the biological warfare and defense program at Fort Detrick, organized by Maryland Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett at Mount St. Mary's College in Emmitsburg.

A slew of tests

Over two decades and 153 studies, the Whitecoats - young, healthy, male soldiers who usually obeyed the church's ban on smoking and drinking - tested vaccines and drugs against a witches' brew of diseases: tularemia, sandfly fever, Venezuelan equine encephalitis, Rift Valley fever, Rocky Mountain spotted fever and others.

Some tested early versions of the biohazard suits that soldiers use today. Others were subjected to extremes of heat or to sleep deprivation. In one experiment, Morgan was kept awake for 80 hours by medics who poked him with an electric prod when he nodded off.

"At about 70 hours, your ability to think was pretty much wiped out," Morgan recalls.

Though the notion of deliberately infecting people might sound sinister today, most Whitecoats believe they suffered no harm, a conclusion the new health survey supports.

Ethics specialists who have studied the Whitecoat program say its informed-consent process was remarkably sophisticated and complete. "To this day, we use basically the consent process they used," says Dr. Arthur O. Anderson, the top ethicist at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Disease, the biodefense successor to the Cold War programs at Fort Detrick.

Anderson says participation in Whitecoat tests appears to have been genuinely voluntary - about 20 percent of soldiers chose not to join any study. He says the soldiers were given at least 48 hours after the risks of an experiment were explained to decide whether to participate.

"By the standards of the time, Whitecoat was exemplary," says Jonathan D. Moreno, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Virginia, who studied Whitecoat for his 2001 book Undue Risk: Secret State Experiments on Humans.

Moreno says American attitudes toward such experiments have shifted sharply since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the subsequent anthrax mailings, which revived the atmosphere of imminent threat that prevailed at the height of the Cold War.

Before the 2001 attacks, he says, no research review committee would have approved giving the smallpox vaccine - which carries a small risk of severe or fatal side effects - to a healthy young adult. Now, because of fears that terrorists might get hold of hidden stocks of the virus, thousands of health care workers are getting the vaccine.

The same changing risk-benefit perception applies to Whitecoat, Moreno says: "Before Sept. 11, people were aghast at the idea of exposing people deliberately to diseases. Now there's a lot more understanding."

False impressions

Given the religious convictions that led them into the program, some of the Whitecoats feel they were not fully informed about the nature of the biological warfare program at Fort Detrick. From World War II until President Richard M. Nixon closed the program in 1969, Army researchers there made biological bombs and spray devices to attack a potential enemy with lethal or crippling germs.

"They gave us the impression that we were going to help find ways to cure diseases that GIs got overseas," says Harry V. Wiant Jr., 70, a Whitecoat volunteer in the 1950s and now a professor of forestry at Pennsylvania State University. "If it had been presented as work designed to aid germ warfare, I can't imagine any of us would have signed up. ... That would be taking lives, not saving lives."

Morgan agrees. "At the time, I thought we were doing medical research that would help young men who get this disease," he says of the Q fever experiment. "Later on it was pretty obvious they were learning how to spread this stuff to enemy troops."

In one Whitecoat study in the Utah desert, human volunteers and caged animals were simultaneously sprayed with Q fever germs. Former bioweapons workers say the results helped scientists estimate the aerosol dose of germs necessary to infect enemy soldiers.

Chaplain Richard O. Stenbakken, director of chaplaincy ministries at the Seventh-day Adventist Church headquarters in Silver Spring, says the same moral concerns arose repeatedly in the 1950s and 1960s. Twice during Whitecoat, top church leaders met with Army officials and concluded that the soldiers were contributing to a defensive bioweapons effort, not an offensive one.

"They came back and said, 'Yes, this does seem to be for life-saving purposes,' " says Stenbakken, a retired Army chaplain. "Could these data be used for offensive purposes? Well, yes. But you could unplug your phone and beat someone to death with it, too."

Alternative to battle

Stenbakken says the church based its support for Whitecoat on the Ten Commandments' prohibition on killing and other biblical admonitions to perform good works.

The church supported Adventists whose consciences led them to refuse service altogether, as well as those who chose to serve in combat. But Whitecoat offered a middle course. "The idea was that if you can serve without taking a life, that's good," Stenbakken says.

The moral ambiguity that disturbs some of the Whitecoat participants affected the entire biological warfare program. Most Army veterans who made bioweapons say they saw the United States' creation of offensive germ weapons as an act of defense.

"We had to show the Russians that if they ever thought about using [germ weapons] on us, we could and would retaliate," says Joseph V. Jemski, who worked at Fort Detrick from 1953 to 1972 and conducted aerobiology tests in the Eight Ball on animals and Whitecoat volunteers. "We had to determine what could be used offensively to know what we'd have to defend against."

Since Whitecoat, some participants have blamed health problems on disease they were exposed to or vaccines they got during the program. Kenneth A. Wright Jr., 68, a Whitecoat veteran from Laurel, says he's fine, but he wonders whether the deaths of two fellow Whitecoats might have resulted from the germ experiments.

Army officials say they haven't reviewed the deaths, but only one Whitecoat was ever judged to have been disabled by his participation. Anderson, Fort Detrick's medical ethicist, says that man was judged to be 80 percent disabled, but he could find no further details.

Dr. Phillip R. Pittman, an Army colonel and senior medical scientist at Fort Detrick who surveyed the Whitecoat veterans, says he found no evidence that the studies harmed them.

Of the 522 who completed his nine-page questionnaire, 358 had been exposed to diseases, vaccines or drugs during their service, and 164 had been in unexposed control groups and were used for comparison. No significant differences could be found between the groups, Pittman says.

"This is encouraging, though it's only a snapshot," Pittman says. "We feel it's a good demonstration that the investigators took a lot of care in doing the Whitecoat studies."

Copyright 2003, The Baltimore Sun

Adventists recall tests illness { October 5 2003 }
Army finds no illness link { October 5 2003 }
Research tests faith citizenship { October 5 2003 }

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