Biological Warfare (BW) Simulants – Bacillus globigii (BG)

BW Simulants

A BW simulant is a supposedly harmless substance which mimics the physical properties of a real BW agent, without causing any adverse health effects. It is often used in public area BW experiments which, by their very nature, prohibit the dissemination of a pathogenic (disease causing) BW agent. A typical BW simulant may be a chemical compound, such as Zinc Cadmium sulphide (ZnCds), or a bacterium, such as E.coli or Bacillus subtilis.

Whether chemical or bacterium, the ideal simulant particle size is identical to that of a real BW agent – between 1-5 microns. This size enables a BW particle to evade the body’s natural defences and penetrate the deepest part of the lungs – the alveoli.

Unfortunately for those exposed to BW simulant aerosols, the end result is that their body is unable to prevent the simulant penetrating deep into their lungs. Closing doors or windows, holding a handkerchief to the mouth – all of these actions are useless in preventing ones lungs from being penetrated by particles of this size.


Bacillus subtilis (aka Bacillus globigii – BG)

Bacillus subtilis is ubiquitous in the environment, especially in hay, dust or water. It is one of Porton’s ‘longest serving’ BW simulants, having been extensively used in Open Air experiments since the early days of WW2.

Porton originally isolated this bacterium from hay taken from the Porton Animal House in 1940, and immediately found a use for it in the newly formed Biology Department Porton’s (BDP) field trials, where it acted as a BW simulant for its more pathogenic relative – Bacillus anthracis (Anthrax).

Like Anthrax, Bacillus subtilis has the capability to become dormant. It does this by producing endospores – a kind of armour plating, which makes it impervious to temperature variations, desiccation, ultra-violet light, starvation and some disinfectants. Porton found the ability of Bacillus anthracis endospores to withstand such extremes made it an ideal BW agent.

Porton originally codenamed Bacillus subtilis ’U’ or ‘Porton U’. This later changed, and became – ‘BG’.

Bacillus subtilis also had a second quality which Porton found most useful – it had the ability to produce pigmented colonies after culture on agar plates. This enabled BG to be of use in two different ways: firstly, as a BW simulant for Anthrax, and secondly, as a tracer organism.

In its second role, BG could be used to trace air or water movement, or it could be released in the company of a second more environmentally sensitive organism in order to measure the viability of the second organism. [The ratio of BG/other organism would be recorded at the time of release, and then re-assessed after sampling at a certain distance downwind. The difference in ratios would give an indication of the effect that travel had on the viability of the second organism.]

After WW2, Porton turned to the US for their supply of standardised BG. This was normally produced and supplied by the US Army Chemical Corps facility at Fort Detrick (the US Biological defence/warfare facility). By the late 1960s, the supply to MRE of US produced BG ceased – from then onwards, all BG was produced on site at Porton Down.

During 1999, the UK Ministry of Defence commissioned Professor Brian Spratt FRS to produced a report [ Independent Review of the Possible Health Hazards of the Large – Scale Release of Bacteria During the Dorset Defence Trials ] which investigated the possible health hazards of Porton’s large-scale release of bacteria in public areas. He reported:

“…B. globigii (B.G) has been widely used as a biological warfare simulant, and for tracking air flow, as it is believed to be entirely safe. The bacterium is common in the environment and in the countryside we are often naturally exposed to this bacterium. There is very little convincing evidence to suggest that B.globigii is harmful to man. Several comments have been made in the press that B.globigii can cause disease. A search of the primary medical literature uncovered no examples of significant disease that was clearly attributed to B.globigii.

B.globigii is now considered to be a variant of B.subtilis. The latter bacterium has been very occasionally encountered in hospital patients who are particularly susceptible to disease, although the association between the presence of this bacterium and disease is not clear.”

In the face of Prof Spratt’s statement, one might conclude that BG was indeed, ‘harmless’.

Indeed, his report echoes a 1977 US Army report [US Army Activity in the US Biological Warfare Program -Vol. 1 – 1977] which contended that BG used in Open Air BW tests “was and is still considered by medical authorities to be harmless (non-pathogenic) to man.”

However, neither of the above opinions equates with the available scientific evidence.

A conventional reference book [Microbiology: 3rd edition Harper and Row 1980] includes Bacillus subtilis in a group of bacteria that cause “infections in man: pulmonary and disseminated infections in immunologically compromised hosts; localized infections in a closed space (e.g. opthalmitis, meningitis); wound infections following trauma, surgery or the introduction of foreign prosthetic material.”

According to Professor Leonard A Cole, in his groundbreaking book – Clouds of Secrecy (p.48):

“Another standard textbook on bacteriology documents that Bacillus subtilis, although considered harmless to most people, may cause infections and invade the “blood stream in cachetic [debilitating] diseases.”

The ‘standard textbook’ mentioned above by Prof. Cole is “Topley’s and Wilson’s Principles of Bacteriology and Immunity – Vol.1 1975 – Graham S Wilson and Ashley Miles. In a remarkable coincidence, one of the textbook’s editors – [Professor] Ashley Miles – appears also to have been a member of the UK Biological Research Advisory Board (BRAB)*.

In December 1961, Prof. Miles had taken an active part in the BRAB meeting (51st meeting) which had granted, for the first time, approval for “the use of living non-pathogens in trials which might involve the exposure of members of the public…”

[*The BRAB was set up in 1946 to provide independent scientific advice on MRE Porton Down’s biological research – it had no power of veto and could only offer ‘advice’ to MRE Porton Down.]

At the time of granting approval, BRAB were quite aware that any such trials would involve the release of large quantities of Porton’s often used BW simulant – Bacillus subtilis; even though members of the Board, such as Prof. Miles, were aware that BG could present an unquantifiable danger to certain individuals.

They were presumably also aware of the findings presented by a Fort Detrick scientist, Dr Carlton Brown, at an international symposium [Inhaled Particles and Vapours], held in Britain in 1959. Dr Brown presented a paper – Human Retention From Single Inhalations of Bacillus Subtilis Spore Aerosols – in which he determined that about 20% of inhaled spores were retained by the [test] subject. Interestingly, the records of the symposium show that a Porton scientist, a Dr R J Shepherd, ‘found particularly interesting Brown’s findings about the effects of breath-holding on the number of spores retained by the subject’ .

Unfortunately, the possibility that populations exposed to massive aerosol of Bacillus subtilis might retain 20% of the inhaled spores didn’t dissuade MRE Porton Down from using it in their public area field trials.

Instead, they stuck to their conviction that BG was ‘harmless‘.

This conviction seems to be based not so much on scientific proof, but more on the fact that it had been used for so many years at Porton that it had become assumed to be ‘harmless’.

This lack of concern was made evident during the 48th Meeting of BRAB (held on 16 July 1960). Tucked away in a small section of the Minutes, entitled – Other Business – is a request for retro-active approval for the use of live BG spores in open air trials:
DR. HENDERSON told the Board that the aircraft dissemination trials had included some at Porton with live B.globigii spores. The material had been tested for non-virulence, and in view of the ample precedent for such releases within the range he had not thought it necessary to seek permission. THE BOARD AGREED.

Remarkably, BG had been repeatedly used in Open Air trials on Porton’s test range for nearly 20 years, without Porton ever feeling the need to seek the approval of the BRAB until 1960!

This attitude appears still to have been prevalent at Porton Down during the mid-1990s.

For instance, when the Sunday Telegraph exclusively revealed that, during the Cold War, the southern counties of the UK had been repeatedly sprayed with live bacteria (E.coli MRE162 and BG), DERA (the organisation then responsible for Porton Down) issued a press release (03 February 1997) which stated:

“…These studies were carried out in the 1960’s and 1970’s and involved the use of harmless simulants…”

Over the next few months DERA continued to stick to the line that BG was harmless…

But by the following December, the first indication came from DERA that their previous assertions may have been incorrect. In a reply to the Member of Parliament for South Dorset – Ian Bruce MP – the Chief Executive of DERA admitted, for the first time, that BG may not be entirely harmless.

The DERA response stated:

“…Secondly, the [redacted] are quite correct in their belief that BG may cause disease in immuno-compromised people. There are, however, two points which need to be made here. Firstly, as we have always made clear, BG is a naturally occurring organism and is always present in the atmosphere. Secondly, the number of immunocompromised people was much smaller in the 1960s than now. For example, many people become immunocompromised as a result of immunosuppressive therapy used after organ transplants, [or] from underlying HIV infections and from the use of anti-cancer therapies. All of these conditions have become more common since the biological defence trials took place.”

DERA declined to comment on the reasons for their change of mind concerning the harmlessness of BG, nor did they indicate how long this change of opinion had been in place.

More recently, in 2006, a declassified Dstl Porton Down Risk Assessment (Dstl/DET/G182) revealed current Porton Down safety procedures for the spraying of Bacillus globigii on the Porton Range:

“The over-arching requirement is to prevent or minimise trial personnel and other people to exposure of deliberately generated aerosols…

…When handling and spraying simulants Dstl staff will don S10 respirators, paper suits over shoes and latex gloves. Where practically possible sprayers will be operated remotely and trials staff will be located up wind of the release point or within over-pressured enclosures. The PCO and TO will consult the meteorological data and downwind hazard prediction models to prevent unacceptable levels of micro-organisms presenting an experimental hazard to work at the main Dstl and CAMR sites and to minimise the exposure of unprotected people to aerosolised non-pathogenic micro-organisms.”

Currently, Bacillus globigii is now considered to be a pathogen for humans – capable of causing disease.

A report, Health Effects of Project SHAD Biological Agent: Bacillus globigii produced in 2007 for the Institute of Medicine, part of the US National Academy of Sciences, states:

“Bacillus globigii

Bacillus globigii (BG) has been called B. subtilis var niger, B. licheniformis and, most recently, B. atrophaeus.
It is a Gram-positive, spore-forming, facultative anaerobe commonly found in dust, soil, and water. It is widely used as a biological tracer and has been shown to produce substances that exhibit antimicrobial activity. In Project SHAD, B.globigii was used to simulate biological warfare agents, because it was then considered a contaminant with little health consequence to humans.

BG is now considered a pathogen for humans. Most infections are associated with the experience of invasive trauma (e.g., catheters, surgery) and/or a debilitated health state; thus it is often encountered as a nosocomial pathogen.

BG is also a well-known cause of food poisoning, resulting in diarrhea and vomiting. Infections are rarely known to be fatal, although fatal food poisoning has been reported. Ocular infections, bacteremia, sepsis/septicaemia, ventriculitis, and peritonitis are the reported types of infection, and they are usually treated with antibiotics. Cases of long-term persistence or recurrence, or of extended latency, have not been found.

Psychogenic effects specifically of BG exposure are not reported. General psychogenic effects of perceived exposure to biological and chemical weapons are found in the supplement under this contract entitled “Psychogenic Effects of Perceived Exposure to Biochemical Warfare Agents.” Prevention of exposure is conscientious hospital and food hygiene. Treatment involves various regimens of antibiotics; the literature provides inconsistent reportson resistance and efficacy of various antimicrobial agents.”

As has been mentioned previously, Porton’s experiments routinely covered an area greater than 1,000 square miles, with an affected population which varied between 75,000 and half a million individuals – many of whom were very young or very old. There is every chance that among these were an as yet unquantifiable number individuals who were undergoing; birth, surgery, cancer therapy, or suffering wound trauma – many of whom would have been vulnerable to Porton’s massive aerosols of Bacillus globigii.

3 Responses to “Biological Warfare (BW) Simulants – Bacillus globigii (BG)”

  1. In normal civil discourse, when your neighbor causes you harm: (Knowledge of harm makes it intentional) intentional illness incuring a doctor’s visit and payment, a trip to the pharmacy and payment, lost time from work lost income, pain and suffering, one could trot on down to the justice of the peace , pay a $10 filling fee and bring them to court trial to pay your damages. Somehow, I don’t think we average people are on the same playing field with military people who would waive the Nuremberg Code to harm us without paying for what the Nazis did and they are too.

  2. Remember, love it or hate it, this technology is developed to study weapons of terror so that we can prevent them, or at least mitigate thier effects.

  3. Born in San Francisco in 1937. In 1950 the Navy sprayed a cloud of bacteria from ships over San Francisco. Many became ill with pneumonia like symptoms. 1953 a joint Army-Navy-CIA experiment involving San Francisco using Serratia marcescens and Bacillus glogigii.

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