Inside the US government’s top-secret bioweapons lab

  • Dugway Proving Ground tests and stores some of the deadliest chemical and biological agents on Earth.
  • The facility, which opened in 1942, covers about 800,000 acres – larger than the state of Rhode Island.
  • Past experiments include weaponized mosquitoes and fleas, as well as tests with deadly diseases such as anthrax.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Following is a transcript of the video.

Narrator: In 1968, about 6,000 sheep died near this government facility. They were poisoned by a chemical weapon named VX.

The US hasn’t been known to actively use VX in combat. In fact, it’s begun destroying its stockpile of chemical munitions as part of a UN treaty. But it’s just one of many strange and secretive experiments that happened within these walls. Experiments on sheep, mosquitoes, and even civilians.

About 85 miles southwest of Salt Lake City is the US government’s top-secret bioweapons lab. It’s called the Dugway Proving Ground. The 77-year-old facility covers about 800,000 acres. That’s just a little larger than the entire state of Rhode Island. And it tests some of the deadliest chemical, biological, radiological, and explosive hazards on Earth.

Less famous than Area 51, Dugway dates all the way back to 1942. Right in the middle of World War II.

Clip: The decisive battle of war has begun.

Narrator: The government needed a large area to test powerful weapons, eventually settling on this stretch of land in the Utah desert. Back then, the site was used to test everything from chemical sprays and flamethrowers to various antidotes and protective equipment, and even fire-bombing.

After World War II, Dugway mostly shut down. Until the Korean War began in 1950. That’s when the proving ground turned into what it is today: a permanent military base. In Dugway’s first few decades, the base worked mostly on offensive weaponry: biological and chemical munitions designed to directly attack enemies.

Clip: Sampling devices, positioned throughout the test area, yield valuable information to chemical core researchers.

Narrator: The 1950s, for example, saw the launch of Operation Big Itch, an experiment that was testing weaponized fleas. The fleas weren’t infected with any type of disease or agent, but experimenters were working with thousands of them. And the fleas were dropped in cluster bombs, to gauge if they would survive the fall from an airplane. And this was only part one. Dugway launched a second experiment, called Project Bellwether, in the 1960s. Only this time, mosquitoes were injected with inert diseases, inert bacteria, and inert viruses. But get this: Those mosquitoes were released upon several groups of human volunteers, who were bitten again and again during the trials.

And there are records dating back to the late 1950s, which describe experiments that used infected mosquitoes. And those are just two experiments known to the public. Exactly what goes on at Dugway is, well, pretty unclear. And that’s not by accident.

The area is intensely guarded. Everything that comes in and out is carefully monitored, guards are on constant patrol and actively armed, and the perimeter is lined with tall, barbed-wire fencing. There are even signs that authorize “deadly force” when necessary.

Since the 1940s, officials say operations have shifted from offensive to defensive tactics. Case in point, most of the current known work prepares agents to defend against potential biological and chemical attacks. For example, a multitude of training programs are held on-site for the armed forces.

Here’s one in which Army Reserve soldiers are tasked with checking the radiation levels of artillery rounds. And here’s another where soldiers were tasked with identifying substances in a simulated chemical lab.

Dugway’s main operations include the “BRAUCH” training facility, constructed from various shipping containers. It simulates underground environments for military training. There are also various buildings and rooms that serve specific purposes. Like the decontamination testing chamber, the wind-tunnel testing room, and the material test facility.

But perhaps the most interesting room of all is this: the Smartman Laboratory facility, which houses the Smartman dummy, a model that’s used to simulate human contact with chemical agents, including the infamous VX nerve agent. Specifically, the Smartman helps the lab develop more effective individual protection respiratory equipment,- essentially, gas masks and the like.

A variety of chemists, chemical analysts, and technicians work on-site. And the use of airtight chambers and gas masks is not only common, but mandatory. Despite all of this dangerous experimentation, the work done at Dugway hasn’t always been properly contained.

Remember that sheep incident? That marked the start of a worrisome track record. It happened when overhead planes spewed out the nerve agent into the wind, accidentally sending it into nearby farmland in Skull Valley. Within the next couple of days, farmers found thousands of sheep dead in their fields. The Army compensated the farmers and lent them bulldozers to bury the sheep. But the accident sparked a whole debate on the use of chemical weapons in warfare.

Adding on to these questionable practices, a 1994 Senate hearing on veterans’ health focused specifically on Dugway veterans and civilians. A report found that people at Dugway were exposed to biological and chemical simulants believed to be safe at the time, but that the Army had later stopped using many of them because “they realized they were not as safe as previously believed.”

One veteran, who was accidentally sprayed in the face with the chemical DMMP in 1984, found himself wheezing and coughing the next day – symptoms that ended up lasting several weeks. Despite this, he was given only cough medicine and antibiotics by the Dugway Army Hospital. The Dugway Safety Office assured him that the chemical was safe. But by 1988, officials at Dugway had reevaluated the simulant’s danger and were concerned it could cause cancer and kidney damage.

In 2011, the facility slipped up again: It went on lockdown after workers lost a vial containing the VX nerve agent. Nobody was permitted to enter or exit the facility, not even the employees.

And in 2016, the CDC and the Department of Defense launched a major investigation when a review team found that Dugway had been operating dangerously for several years without the government’s knowledge. USA Today reported “egregious failures” by the facility’s leadership and staff. The reports singled out the head colonel in command at Dugway, Brig. Gen. William King.

The Army’s accountability investigation recognized King as unqualified, lacking the education and training to effectively oversee biosafety procedures crucial to Dugway’s operation. The report admonished him, saying he “repeatedly deflected blame” and “minimized the severity of incidents.” It even says King “fails to recognize” how serious the incidents truly were. And how serious were the incidents, exactly? Well, under King’s command, the facility mistakenly shipped live anthrax to other labs. And not just once, but multiple times. For over a decade.

That same report revealed that workers had been regularly and deliberately manipulating data in important records. Records meant to verify that pathogens being transported elsewhere were killed and safe for researchers to handle without protective gear. Still, the facility’s shady past, secretive operations, and intense surveillance have captured the attention, and skepticism, of some closer observers, including several conspiracy-theorist groups.

There are suggestions that the facility is the “new Area 51.” And the local community has raised their own questions about the facility’s operations. Dugway was even featured in an episode of The History Channel’s “UFO Hunters,” in which local residents and UFO watchers were interviewed and footage from the area was examined. It’s hard not to wonder, when you live in close proximity to such a restricted landscape.

Despite these theories, Dugway has expressed a desire to be “more transparent.” And representatives have said the facility wants to be “more a part of the local community” by better informing citizens about what exactly goes on there. So far, they’ve delivered some on that. The facility has its own events page, which lists several events open to the general public and the local Utah community. This year, they’re hosting a trail race on the facility grounds.

Certainly, today’s Dugway is a far cry from the 1940s Dugway, which was entirely closed off to the public. But despite the shift in the level of secrecy, much of Dugway’s testing remains classified, preserving the skepticism and mysteriousness surrounding the facility.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This video was originally published in October 2019.

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The next global pandemic may be caused by a bioterrorist attack, says Harvard tech expert

Factory worker with dangerous materials
The next global pandemic could be the result of a bioterrorist attack.

  • The next global pandemic could be caused by a bioterrorist attack, warned tech expert Vivek Wadhwa.
  • He’s worried about the accessibility of CRISPR gene editing, which allows genes to be cut and paste.
  • Although “the genie is out of the bottle,” an effective counter-response could prevent an attack.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The next global pandemic could be the result of a bioterrorist attack, a tech expert has warned.

Vivek Wadhwa, a distinguished fellow and adjunct professor at Carnegie Mellon’s School of Engineering, said in an essay for Foreign Policy that this was largely due to advances in cheap and easily accessible methods of genetic engineering.

Conspiracy theories have often suggested that the COVID-19 pandemic is a “bioweapon” manufactured in a Chinese lab.

However, Wadhwa, who is also a distinguished fellow of Harvard Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program, insisted that the pandemic was not created in a lab, citing a report by Nature Medicine.

“But if genetic engineering wasn’t behind this pandemic, it could very well unleash the next one,” Wadhwa said.

He believes the current pandemic should be treated as a “dress rehearsal of what is to come, including viruses deliberately engineered by humans.”

Advances in genetic engineering are a double-edged sword

The concerns of those in science and tech have slowly been becoming a reality, with Wadhwa pointing to the ease of access to gene editing kits in the US.

Mail-order do-it-yourself kits can be ordered by anyone, with a bacterial engineering kit costing as little as $169. Meanwhile, a human engineering kit comes in at $349.

One reviewer said they were a high-school student while another said they “didn’t know it could be this easy.”

This ease of accessibility is largely due to the advances of CRISPR gene editing, which enables scientists to cut and paste genes, with the possibility of curing or eradicating malaria or Huntingdon’s disease, but also of damaging species and ecosystems.

Wadhwa said CRISPR makes it “almost as easy to engineer life forms as it is to edit Microsoft Word documents.”

“There should have been international treaties to prevent the use of CRISPR for gene editing on humans or animals. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration should have kept companies from selling DIY gene-editing kits,” Wadhwa added.

In April 2015, Chinese researchers genetically engineered human embryos, and this was followed by a failed attempt to genetically modify two babies to be HIV-resistant in 2018.

The scientist involved in the latter experiment, He Jiankui, was eventually sentenced to three years in prison.

There is still much research to be done on CRISPR, which has not yet been declared safe for use and has previously caused concern due to potential links with cancer.

Although this was largely dismissed as an “overreaction”, there is no clear consensus among scientists, with geneticist Allan Bradley of the Wellcome Sanger Center saying the effects of CRISPR had been “seriously underestimated.”

Gene editing DNA
CRISPR gene editing enables scientists to ‘cut and paste’ genetic information.

Could this lead to a pandemic created by bioterrorists?

From board games simulating a bioterrorist attack to a bipartisan report declaring the US to be “significantly underprepared” for bioterrorism, it seems a bioterrorism pandemic could well be in our future.

“The bad is just too terrible to think about,” said Wadha, who maintained “the only solution is to accelerate the good side of these technologies while building our defenses.”

Piers Millett, of the University of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute, is more optimistic than Wadhwa.

Speaking to Future of Life, he said gene editing was not a significant step forward for biowarfare, and pinned the possibilities of bioterrorist attacks on “states” rather than lone actors.

He did, however, concede that the intentional creation of a harmful pathogen would be “amongst the most dangerous things on the planet.”

In 2018 the John Hopkins Center for Health Security ran a simulation exercise with US policymakers, testing their reactions and decisions in the face of a bioterrorist attack involving a highly contagious disease, according to Vox.

Vox reported that the results showed worldwide deaths in excess of 150 million and a 90% tumble for the Dow Jones.

“It is now too late to stop the global spread of these technologies – the genie is out of the bottle,” Wadhwa said.

Their potential harmful impact will depend on how quickly a counter-response can be formed. If used for good, however, these technologies could be the answer to curing “all disease.”

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