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Operation Sea-Spray: the secret bacteriological experiment conducted over San Francisco in 1950

Operation Sea-Spray: the secret bacteriological experiment conducted over San Francisco in 1950 35

In 1981 a US court filed the case initiated by the grandchildren of Edward J. Nevin, who had sued the federal government as responsible for the death of their grandfather due to negligence that also had as a secondary effect the ruin of the grandmother for payments doctors. It was not a normal case, since, according to the relatives, the death was due to a bacteriological infection caused directly by an experiment carried out by the US Navy on the civilian population.

The alleged events took place thirty years earlier, during the month of September 1950. Bacteriological weapons were a novelty if we refer to them in the strict sense and we ignore the historical news about epidemics deliberately caused by plague or smallpox, which are often more than legend than reality. It was in the First World War when they began to scientifically experiment with microbes for their military application, although in that contest the interest focused on mustard gas, chlorine or phosgene until their definitive prohibition – theoretically – by the Geneva Protocol of 1925.

Operation Sea-Spray: the secret bacteriological experiment conducted over San Francisco in 1950 36

British soldiers with gas masks in World War I / Photo: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

The initial singing voice in these investigations was led by Japan through the sinister Unit 731, initially called the Kamo Unit and created in 1932 for the control of epidemics, although with the arrival of World War II it changed its interest to just the opposite: the infection of enemy troops and the development of biological weapons, experimenting with thousands of Chinese prisoners. It seems that it was then that anthrax was first tested and also covertly, contaminating food.

The Japanese were not the only ones to work in this field, as the Germans and British did it too. The US also incorporated a research plan, counting on some of the Japanese scientists from Unit 731 and other Germans. The first steps were taken in 1942 in Fort Detrick, Maryland, where today the headquarters of the USAMRIID (United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases) is located, developing it in parallel with the other large arms sector of the post-war period, the atomic.

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Fort Detrick Operators / Photo: Priceonomics

But it was in the following decade that things really moved forward, partly fueled by the outbreak of the Korean War. The striking thing about the matter was that an experimentation program with the population was designed to verify the effects in the most accurate way possible, since the Bacteriological Warfare Committee created in 1948 warned of the susceptibility of the United States to an attack of this nature. For this, it was necessary to spread the pathogens in cities, so that they would disperse naturally as they would in a real situation, thus being able to record, quantify and analyze the results in various areas and different atmospheric conditions. San Francisco was the first city chosen for what was baptized as Operation Sea-Spray.

It consisted of spraying forty-three locations in the bay area, calculating that it could affect a segment of inhabitants between five and eight hundred thousand. Of course, despite the fact that the final object of the research only consisted of assessing the susceptibility of a large city to a biological attack, either from a defensive or offensive point of view, it was estimated that the effects during the experiment would be almost imperceptible, given that the amount of bacteriological agents used was limited and what was really sought at the moment was to see how they were dispersed to design an optimized plan of countermeasures.

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San Francisco Bay / Image: Google

The problem was in these agents: one was a bacteria called Bacillus globigii, a variety of Bacillus atrophaeus used in medicine for biocontainment. But the other wasSerratia marcescens, a bacillus that develops preferentially in conditions of high humidity – it is usually found in sewers and hospitals – which in 1950 was thought to be innocuous but it was a mistake, since it causes multiple symptoms that are sometimes mild (conjunctivitis, kidney infections and urinary) and other serious (respiratory problems and even meningitis).

Both were scattered from a navy mine chaser accompanied by cadmium-zinc sulfide particles to facilitate monitoring. Over the course of a week between September 20 and 27 of that year, the ship’s hoses released emissions that lasted half an hour into the air., adding a total of four of Bacillus globigii and two of Serratia marcescens that formed a contagious invisible cloud more than three kilometers long. The experiment was considered a threatening success: it was feasible to cause an infection in an urban nucleus quite easily and imperceptibly.

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Cultivo de Serratia marcerescens / Photo: User: Brudersohn en Wikimedia Commons

Then came the unforeseen damages. Very shortly thereafter, on October 11, eleven people were rushed to Stanford Hospital with pneumonia and UTIs so rare in diagnosis and coincidence that one of the doctors would publish a study on the matter in a prestigious medical journal. Ten of those patients recovered and were discharged shortly thereafter, but the eleventh – actually the first, a seventy-five-year-old man who underwent prostate surgery – was unlucky and died in just three weeks from endocarditis, which is another damage that can cause Serratia marcescens after traveling to the heart from the urinary tract through the blood. The unfortunate one was Edward J. Nevin.

That strange spike in income and the presence of Serratia marcerens, hitherto unpublished in the hospital, they sowed some confusion but as the thing was not repeated it fell into oblivion until in 1977, in an appearance before the Senate Subcommittee on Health and Scientific Research and that type of tests had already been canceled by Nixon in 1969, the US Navy publicly admitted carrying out the Operation Sea-Spray and had not warned the health authorities of the experiment. Not only that, but between 1949 and 1969 he had also carried out another two hundred and thirty-nine similar tests in the open air using bacteria or chemical agents that mimicked them.

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Current view of a part of Stanford hospital / Photo: Stanford Health Care

Of course, underlining that all were innocuous and that the cases referred to had nothing to do with it, being only an anomalous coincidence, as demonstrated that in that decade such sprays had been repeated in Panama City and Key West (Florida) without problems. , as in later years in other places such as New York, Washington or Pennsylvania. In some of them even using again Bacillus globigii, as was done at the Washington National Airport in 1965; in others, as in New York the following year, with a variety called Bacillus subtilis Niger, which was launched into the Manhattan subway and caused no damage.

Likewise, they pointed out that no other hospital in San Francisco had registered anything similar, so the eleven patients fell ill during normal medical procedures; in other words, the source of infection would be in the hospital complex itself. But the medical establishment wondered if other cases of the time that had a considerable rebound – coronary infections and pneumonia, as well as a rise in intravenous infections among drug addicts in the 1960s and 1970s – would not also be related. In fact, cadmium zinc sulfide is today considered carcinogenic.

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Edward Nevin III, the plaintiff / Image: Priceonomics

All of this raised doubts among Nevin’s descendants, one of whose grandsons, Edward J. Nevin III, was a lawyer and filed a lawsuit in San Francisco District Court in 1981. After a series of delays and even attempted assault of a general, saw how the judge decided to dismiss it when finding no conclusive correlation, arguing that in the other places there had been no victims and that not even cadmium-zinc sulfide had significantly increased cancer in Minnesota, one of the states where it was specifically sprayed. Nevin appealed to the Supreme Court, but the latter confirmed the sentence, agreeing with the State’s legal profession, which held that there were two different strains that coincided in time and place.

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