Sixty years after the first experiments of Operation Whitecoat, a test program at Fort Detrick that exposed Army volunteers to diseases, the memories of those human subjects’ have faded.
Some can’t remember how many experiments they agreed to. Some aren’t sure if their fellow service members got sick. Others forget what virus or vaccine was tested on them.
After considering the question for a few moments, 80-year-old John Wilson remembered.
“They were testing me for tularemia,” a rare infectious disease that normally affects mammals but can be transmitted to humans, Wilson said. “It wouldn’t grow on my blood for some reason.”
Wilson, who lives near Burkittsville, was one of about 2,300 Seventh-Day Adventists in military service who volunteered to be part of Operation Whitecoat. He consented to be exposed to infectious agents, but he never got sick, he said. Others weren’t as lucky.
The volunteers came to Fort Detrick in droves from 1955 through 1973 to help Army researchers break new ground and find out how to defend service members from biological attacks.
Operation Whitecoat spurred the development of gas masks, biohazard suits, modern informed-consent protocols and, indeed, the U.S. Army Medical Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick.
The project started in the early 1950s, when the Department of Defense realized the general population was vulnerable to biological attacks. Members of an armed forces council doubted that the research of the day, which had showed the lethal effects of these attacks on animals, could be translated to humans.
Ken Jones, a Seventh-Day Adventist and conscientious objector who now lives in California, signed up to be one of Operation Whitecoat’s first human test subjects.
“This was not supposed to be a classified thing, but it would not have happened today,” Jones said.
He arrived at Fort Detrick in January 1955 at a nearly empty hospital on the post. The nurses took X-rays, blood samples and electrocardiograms. They had three meals a day, television and ping-pong.
They were quarantined.
“No one came in the place except certain people, and no one went out,” Jones said.
Fort Detrick had built a giant, 40-foot-wide steel chamber — the “One Million Liter Test Sphere,” which was later dubbed the “8-ball” — to expose humans to infectious airborne agents within a controlled environment.
After about a week of ping-pong, an Army colonel would bring the test subjects to the chamber.
An elevator took the subjects to a platform around the bulging middle of the steel sphere. They sat at ports, spaced evenly around the sphere’s circumference, and breathed the air, contaminated with the pathogen that causes Q fever, released inside.
Then, the surveillance began.
“Every day blood work, every day doctors going over us, X-rays quite often,” Jones said.
Jones and his fellow subjects didn’t get sick, but a subject in the next group of three did.
“We were still in quarantine and his temperature was up to 104 or 105,” Jones said. “It was quite serious at that point. They wanted to see if the vaccine would counteract it.”
During Operation Whitecoat, the Army administered doses of pathogens that caused Q fever and tularemia, and, in later years, used encephalitis, yellow fever and the plague, diseases which at the time generally had proven or experimental treatments.
Some, like Wilson, were given a dose, but didn’t get sick.
The fevered subjects got better, Jones said, but others would also fall ill during the experiments.
“Their willingness to take the risk to have these diseases — that’s heroism,” said Dr. Arthur Anderson, director of the Office of Human Use and Ethics at USAMRIID.
A scientific poster about Operation Whitecoat, featuring a photo of the U.S. Army Medical Unit, hangs on a wall outside Anderson’s office.
The researchers who conducted Operation Whitecoat experiments worked under the U.S. Army Medical Unit, which later became USAMRIID.
The institute still benefits from the results of Operation Whitecoat testing.
To handle the pathogens, researchers developed biological safety cabinets with hoods that directed airflow — and potentially, escaped pathogens — away from them.
They also developed a similar airflow system on a larger scale. The interior of a “hot” room, or an area where researchers or subjects directly interacted with pathogens, had negative air pressure.
Outside the room, positive airflow was maintained to ensure that if airborne pathogens were released, they would not leave the hot room.
“That was basically invented here,” Anderson said.
USAMRIID’s modern labs, including those where maximum containment is necessary for pathogens that are deadly or have no vaccine, use the differential air pressure mechanism in addition to other safeguards, such as biosafety suits.
Other lab technologies and practices developed through Operation Whitecoat include incubators, decontamination procedures and refrigerated centrifuges.
Several vaccines administered to test subjects and refined during Operation Whitecoat are currently used by industry and lab workers, according to Anderson.
Personnel at USAMRIID who work with infectious agents in biocontainment labs still receive those vaccines today.
USAMRIID still performs experiments with human subjects at Fort Detrick, though those tests are less frequent, Anderson said, and usually on an outpatient basis.