On July 17, 2020, Nandita Haksar, a prominent advocate for civil rights and a lawyer in the Supreme Court, raised an intriguing question in her article titled “Stranger than fiction: Did the CIA carry out clandestine mosquito experiments in 1970s India?” She pondered whether scientific collaboration becomes a battleground where profit-driven politics clash with politics serving the people’s interests. Being the daughter of the late P.N. Haksar, a respected bureaucrat, member of the Planning Commission, and Principal Secretary to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, she possessed firsthand knowledge of the contentious closure of the Genetic Control of Mosquitoes Unit (GCMU) under the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR).
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In her own words, “It was in this room that I heard many stories of covert operations. That day, a young journalist came by and told my father of a strange experiment with mosquitoes being conducted right near Palam airport, as Delhi airport was then called. The man said it was an experiment on yellow fever. ‘But we don’t have yellow fever in India,’ my father had exclaimed. The journalist said that this was exactly his point. He claimed it was a part of a biological warfare experiment. We all sat in shocked silence.” This journalist, Chakravarthi Raghavan, eventually rose to become the head of the Press Trust of India (PTI). Another key figure in the investigation was Dr. K.S. Jayaraman, who was no ordinary reporter. Holding a PhD in nuclear physics from a U.S. university, he had chosen journalism as an elective and resigned from his government scientist position to become the Chief Science Reporter at PTI.
The complete account of the events leading to the closure of GCMU in 1975, which was originally established by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to study genetic mosquito control, has faded into obscurity. Similarly, the guidelines formulated in 1975 by a committee of esteemed scientists like Prof. M.S. Swaminathan and Prof. M.G.K. Menon regarding international scientific collaboration have also been consigned to oblivion. As someone who worked as a scientist at GCMU and now, at the age of 91, with recollections gradually fading away, I take a moment to reminisce about what transpired during those times.
The financing for the GCMU project solely relied on the PL 480 Funds, which were rupees deposited with the U.S. Embassy. This funding, entirely American, was managed by the WHO. However, the collaboration between the two parties was heavily one-sided. The WHO oversaw all aspects of the project through its representative, Dr. R. Pal, while the ICMR only covered the salaries of the recruited Indian staff. There existed an agreement between the WHO and the ICMR, as well as a separate agreement between the WHO and the United States Public Health Service (USPHS). Surprisingly, the ICMR was unaware of the latter agreement, as was the Health Ministry of India. The USPHS made all the policy decisions, with a representative from Fort Detrick, the U.S. biological warfare division’s headquarters, attending the scientific and technical meetings.
According to the agreement with the ICMR, the project’s objective was to explore the potential use of genetic methods in controlling malaria and filariasis vectors. However, the actual work conducted deviated from the agreement’s intentions. No research was carried out on Anopheles stephensi, the urban malaria vector prevalent in Delhi, which was contrary to the agreement’s spirit. Extensive studies, on the other hand, focused on the filariasis vector Culex quinquifasciatus, despite the absence of filariasis in Delhi. Furthermore, there was an excessive emphasis on studying Aedes aegypti, the dangerous yellow fever vector, despite the disease not being prevalent in India. Thus, the flawed policy was apparent right from the project’s inception.
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First and foremost, the decision to establish the GCMU in Delhi, a city not endemic to malaria or filariasis, raises questions. The late Dr. N.G.S. Raghavan, an authority on filariasis and the Director of the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD), questioned the rationale behind choosing Delhi, as quoted by the Public Accounts Committee of Parliament. Was it due to its proximity to defense establishments? Surprisingly, the NICD was never consulted, despite being a premier Central government research institute with branches across India. Moreover, the WHO representative at the GCMU, Dr. Pal, who was in charge of all operations, had previously served as a Malaria Inspector at the Malaria Institute of India (MII) for many years before joining the WHO. It’s worth noting that he maintained his lien on his MII position even after joining the WHO, which violated the rules. The termination of his lien only occurred in 1975 when an inquiry was initiated regarding the GCMU’s work.
What the GCMU work was all about
The GCMU conducted comprehensive investigations by utilizing automated techniques to rear millions of Culex quinquifasciatus (Cq) mosquitoes and chemosterilize presumed male specimens using the drug thiotepa (and also irradiation). The unit devised a mechanical device to separate males and females at the pupal stage itself. Subsequently, the males were released in numerous villages surrounding Delhi. The intention was for the released males to compete with the indigenous males and mate with the wild females, ultimately resulting in the production of infertile eggs. However, the ecologists involved in the project discovered the following issues:
- The released males exhibited inferior competitiveness in various aspects compared to the wild males, thereby failing to induce 100 percent sterility in the wild mosquito population.
- The separation of sexes at the pupal stage proved to be ineffective, resulting in a female contamination rate of approximately 3-5 percent. Consequently, thousands of females, capable of biting humans, were inadvertently released alongside the males. This occurred due to the lack of distinct sexual dimorphism in the size of male and female pupae.
- Alternative approaches, such as irradiation and the release of cytoplasmically incompatible Cq mosquitoes, were implemented. However, the latter method, developed by German scientist Hans Laven, turned out to be unsuccessful. It was discovered that the so-called incompatibility was attributable to the presence of a rickettsial infection, which could be cured by administering tetracycline to the animals on which the mosquitoes fed.
- Nevertheless, noteworthy and extensive field studies were conducted on the ecology, behavior, and population dynamics of the filarial mosquito, Culex.
- Lastly, disproportionate emphasis was placed on Aedes aegypti, accompanied by extensive research efforts.
Studies on the yellow fever vector
Why were extensive investigations conducted on Aedes aegypti, the vector of yellow fever, despite the absence of yellow fever in India? An unclassified document from the United States Army Chemical Corps in 1960, which detailed their efforts in chemical and biological warfare, revealed: “In 1953, the Biological Warfare (BW) Laboratories in Fort Detrick established a program[me] to study the use of arthropods for spreading anti-personnel BW agents.” The report cited the advantages of using insects and pointed out that “they will remain alive for some time, keeping an area constantly dangerous”.
The document highlighted the advantages of utilizing insects, noting that they could remain alive for an extended period, thereby sustaining a constant threat in a given area. The program specifically focused on studying Aedes aegypti and the yellow fever virus, with the Soviet Union being the apparent target during the Cold War era. The report mentioned, “Yellow fever has never occurred in some areas, including Asia, and therefore it is quite probable that the population of these areas would be quite susceptible to the disease.”
In the period between April and November of 1956, the Corps released non-infected female mosquitoes (Aedes aegypti) in a residential region in Savannah, Georgia. It was discovered that within a day, the mosquitoes had traveled one to two miles and had bitten numerous individuals. A subsequent test conducted in the same area in 1958 confirmed that “mosquitoes could be spread over areas of several miles by means of devices dropped from planes or set up on the ground. And while these tests were made with uninfected mosquitoes, it is a fairly safe assumption that infected mosquitoes could be spread equally well.” Consequently, it is worth noting that the GCMU had perfected “mass production techniques” and developed an automated distribution system for Aedes mosquitoes. This system was implemented through a contraption mounted on a cycle rickshaw, enabling it to navigate narrow lanes in densely populated cities and release the mosquitoes in clusters.
‘National Herald’ expose
However, the roots of controversy were planted on February 11, 1972, less than two years after the establishment of GCMU when a national daily called National Herald published an article titled “Science or Neo Imperialism” authored by an anonymous “scientific worker” (later revealed to be a deceased high-ranking defence scientist of Director’s rank). This article stirred up a commotion, shedding light on the use of thiotepa, a carcinogenic substance employed by GCMU for mosquito sterilization. The story gained further momentum when the weekly tabloid Blitz from Bombay prominently featured it in their headlines.
Interestingly, around the same time, German News, a publication by the German Embassy in Delhi, carried an article by Prof. Hans Laven, who was associated with GCMU, endorsing the use of his strain of Cq mosquitoes with cytoplasmic incompatibility, aligning with the views expressed in National Herald. This triggered an immediate panic response, leading to reports that the Director General of ICMR requested C. Raghavan, the Chief of PTI, to dispatch an investigator to examine the matter. This is when K.S. Jayaraman entered the scene. He conducted thorough investigations for a period of 15 months and subsequently released a report through PTI on July 9, 1974, critically assessing the functioning of GCMU. This report garnered widespread coverage in newspapers across India.
This created a sensation as it involved the WHO. Mainstream quoted Raghavan as saying, “It took us nearly nineteen months of patient investigation, cross checking of all leads, and reading up a great deal of technical material, to understand the ramifications of various foreign-sponsored research activities in the country. Our main effort centred on the work of the Genetic Control of Mosquito Unit (GCMU), an outfit run by the World Health Organisation (WHO) under an agreement with the Health Ministry in the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), and financed by the United States out of PL-480 Funds.” The report further quoted Raghavan as saying, “While it took us fifteen months to put together the story and issue it, it took the Minister just twenty-four hours of reading up on mosquitoes to dub the report ‘tendentious, unfair, and misleading’.”
Parliament on alert
The issue was brought up in Parliament, and it was determined that the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) would look into it. Raghavan said: “It took nine more months of patient inquiry by the PAC before the PTI team was vindicated, and the Health Ministry indicted. In the process of digging up material to help the PAC’s investigation and present a picture of what goes on in this land of ours, we came across so much of material that perhaps would fill a book, and almost read like a thriller.… The obstruction and non-cooperation of the bureaucracy in our attempts to get at the facts did not come as a surprise to us, though my colleague, Dr K.S. Jayaraman, who did all the legwork and reading and researching, was aghast, as a scientist, to find out that in the Health Ministry scientists and doctors could not freely discuss matters even on a scientific level without being afraid of action from the top.” One of India’s finest scientists was also harassed for cooperating with Jayaraman’s investigation.
For the first time in the history of parliamentary proceedings in India, an adjournment motion was successfully passed, focusing on the subject of biological warfare. As previously mentioned, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), led by the astute parliamentarians Prof. Hiren Mukerjee (167th Report) and Jyotirmay Basu (200th Report), exposed various questionable activities occurring under the guise of international collaboration and the World Health Organization (WHO) in India.
They specifically unveiled the U.S.’s involvement in biological warfare, cleverly concealed by the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS), within GCMU. Contrary to the agreement between the WHO and the Government of India, the GCMU diverted its efforts from malaria research to filarial vector control, even though the disease was not endemic in the region. The most alarming aspect was the intensive focus on Aedes aegypti, the vector responsible for yellow fever and dengue, which had no relevance to human malaria or filariasis. Elaborate measures were taken to mass rear the mosquitoes and establish a precise mechanism for distributing Aedes aegypti throughout the bustling streets of Sonepat, Haryana. A detailed street map was created for this purpose.
However, just before the operations were set to commence, the Indian Army intervened. Multiple individuals and organizations played a role in halting the operations, including Raghavan, Jayaraman, an anonymous entomologist, P.N. Haksar, Ashok Parthasarathy (then scientific adviser to the Prime Minister), the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), and high-ranking military officials. On January 31, 1975, the Chairman of the PAC wrote to the Prime Minister (PAC 225), urging her to utilize the best intelligence services available to investigate this project and related endeavors. The defense authorities also took notice of the articles published in National Herald.
The intervention extended to the Haryana government as well. On February 17, 1975, they claimed to have apprehended a GCMU official on the outskirts of Sonepat while she was in possession of the necessary equipment and on the verge of distributing Aedes aegypti in the streets. She was released only after providing assurances that no experiments would be conducted in Sonepat without specific approval from the Haryana government. Subsequently, the Prime Minister apparently stepped in and instructed the Health Minister to terminate the project. As a result, the GCMU was officially shut down in June 1975.
Nearly five decades later, as someone who was involved with the GCMU, I find it necessary to recount this story. It is crucial for present-day policymakers and scientists to be aware of what truly transpired and to recognize the potential pitfalls of international collaboration in the field of science and technology. (Source: “Mosquito in the Ointment,” Frontline, January 28, 2018).
Flying Syringes is a phrase that is used to refer to a proposed project funded by Bill Gates to create genetically modified mosquitoes that inject vaccines into people when they bite them.