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August 2, 2000

Biological Warfare in the 1940s and 1950s—Reply

Author Affiliations

Stephen J.LurieMD, PhD, Contributing EditorIndividualAuthor

JAMA. 2000;284(5):561. doi:10.1001/jama.284.5.561

In Reply: Drs Endicott and Hagerman asserted that US and Canadian forces used biological weapons during the Korean War causing outbreaks of such diverse diseases as bacterial meningitis; scrub-, murine-, and tick-borne typhus; dengue fever; encephalitis; cholera; smallpox; plague; hemorrhagic fever; dysentery; and typhoid on the battlefield and in mainland China.1 All of these infections had been reported from the area decades prior to the war.2-5 Five isolated cases of respiratory anthrax were described from different localities, occurring some 250 miles apart in northern China during the Korean War.1

Human and animal cases of anthrax are still seen worldwide including in North America.6 Nonoccupational inhalation anthrax is very rare but is not unknown. It is difficult to believe that spore containing munitions would leave only 1 person dead at 1 site. An anthrax-infected animal carcass can contaminate an environment for years. Spores can spread by wind or be inhaled by a dutiful son digging up his father's bones for proper burial elsewhere.1,6

The authors failed to discuss the dismal academic environment in China during that period. Institutes had powerful political monitors and dissidents were forced to submit to humiliating public confessions or worse. Korea and China had endured civil war, an oppressive occupation, famine, and all kinds of human rights abuses. One would expect a near total breakdown of public health. If North Korea and China did not report cases of encephalitis, cholera, and plague in the years prior to 1952, it is likely that the Chinese public health authorities of these countries had other priorities.

Endicott and Hagerman accused the US Army's 406 Laboratory at Tokyo of being actively engaged in offensive biological warfare research and having continued Japanese "studies" from the infamous Manchurian Unit 731.1 This is untrue. The mission of the 406 Laboratory during and after the Korean War was to act as a reference laboratory for military hospitals and to do research in epidemiology, virology, and microbiology. It was an open facility and teeming with Japanese and other postdoctoral students. The staff made significant contributions by working out such problems as "what happens to the Japanese encephalitis virus during the winter when it virtually disappeared in Japan and Korea."1 They also worked with malaria, Korean hemorrhagic fever, leptospirosis, hepatitis, dengue, venereal diseases, enteric fevers, and rabies.

The US, British, Canadian, Russian, and other governments have admitted to defensive and offensive biological warfare research since World War I. It is impossible to completely refute all allegations that experiments with microbes and vectors were carried out during the Korean conflict. However, any effort must start with careful examination of the sources of accusations. Endicott and Hagerman failed to present convincing evidence and relied on Chinese government propaganda materials and hearsay. Only the release of Allied engagement reports or the voluntary appearance of an actual perpetrator might settle this emotional issue.

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