UK government released anthrax on London Underground in deadly Cold War test

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Today, the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down is at the forefront of the battle against the coronavirus pandemic.

But in the early Sixties, it was still the home of some deeply sinister weapons experiments.

On July 26, 1963, passengers on a London Underground train were deliberately exposed to deadly anthrax in a potentially deadly test that is only now coming to light.

The toxin – B globigii bacteria – was concealed in a woman’s powder compact that was thrown onto the tracks somewhere between Colliers Wood and Tooting Broadway stations in south London.

The deadly spores took roughly 15 minutes to travel the ten miles north to Camden Town.

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Since 2001, new treatments have brought anthrax patients' mortality rate to a little under half of infections.

But in the early Sixties, inhaling anthrax spores was fatal in around 90% of cases.

There is no available record of the effects of the test, or how many people suffered long-term effects from it.

Certainly the Porton Down scientists found it valuable enough to stage a similar open-air test the following year.

When the British Army tested anthrax on the tiny Gruinard Island off the Scottish coast during World War II, spores were still active and still potentially deadly decades later.

The symptoms of infection include fever, chills, and extreme fatigue. The body’s own defences can trigger deadly sepsis.

The reckless test was one of several Cold War incidents where unwitting guinea pigs were exposed to potentially genocidal weapons.

In 2002, Norman Baker, then a Lib Dem MP campaigned for at the release of a release details of bioweapon tests the British government conducted between 1940 and 1979. The list of tests he received, he told the Daily Mail, ran to over 50 pages.

Over 20,000 British servicemen were forced to watch the nuclear weapons tests on Christmas Island between 1952 and 1958. Today, most of them have died, leaving the lasting effects of the damage on their health and DNA unknown.

In 1950, the US Navy conducted open-air experiments in Norfolk, Virginia, and the US Army deliberately released bioweapons over San Francisco.

The bacterial particles were believed to have been rendered inert by scientists, but the exact effects of those tests also remain unknown.

In 1951, Porton Down scientists began a series of nerve gas on British squaddies, many of them conscripts on National Service.

Volunteers were given a £2 bonus and a few days’ extra leave.

At least one of them, 20-year-old Ronald Maddison, died within hours of being exposed to deadly Sarin liquid.

In the US, Project Artichoke – precursor of the notorious MK Ultra program – tested LSD and other mind-altering substances on unwitting subjects in the hope of creating perfect mind-controlled assassins.

The Cold War was undoubtedly a dangerous time, when the fate of civilisation hung in the balance, but some of the measures taken by the superpowers to ensure that their side came out on top were dubious in the extreme.

In 2016, the UK government said of the human testing undertaken at at Porton Down: “The Volunteer Programme has always been operated to the highest ethical standards of the day.”

“What Ministers failed to note,” writes Norman Baker, “is that the highest ethical standards of the day were very low indeed.”

  • Science
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