The Gulf War Mystery
By Paul M. Rodriguez
A retired Army general officially denies implications of tests showing antibodies for synthetic squalene in blood of hundreds of sick gulf war veterans. But he admits recent experiments with a suspect adjuvant.
Since Insight first reported that preliminary laboratory tests on a representative sample of Persian Gulf War soldiers found high numbers of antibodies for a synthetic polymer called squalene (see "Sickness and Secrecy," Aug. 25), the calls, letters and E-mails that have poured in have run the gamut from cheers to so-what’s to nothing but bunk and junk.
. . The gist of such communications thus far has centered on conjecture that gulf-war soldiers were inoculated with "cocktails" of immunizations that may have produced unwanted or negative reactions either singly or with such variables as exposure to chemical/biological agents, environmental contaminants, oil-fire pollution or a combination of all of these, to name but a few theories.
At the center of virtually all the comments we received were questions about how squalene could be an issue worth exploring as a possible clue to gulf-war syndrome, or Persian Gulf illness, given that squalene occurs naturally in the human body and often is used in health foods and cosmetics. Readers also asked why we emphasized a "discovery" of synthetic squalene as opposed to natural squalene: If they aren't the same, shouldn't they be?
We begin this week's report much as we began and ended the initial report two weeks ago -- that is, with no ready answers and more mystery.
In an Aug. 13 press conference at the Department of Defense, or DoD, to announce the latest studies into four cases of suspected chemical-warfare exposure of U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf War region, retired Army Lt. Gen. Dale Vesser gave the first -- and thus far only -- official government response to the Insight story. Vesser, who works for the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Persian Gulf illnesses, emphatically told reporters that only alum was used as an adjuvant in immunizations administered to soldiers during the war.
Vesser also said the theory of use of an adjuvant other than alum was explored by the military two years ago and was dismissed because 1) nothing but alum was used, and 2) no such sickness as adjuvants' disease exists. This latter point deals with a theory that adjuvants can cause unwanted immune responses in humans.
Vesser then went on to state that while immunization records and other medical documents are missing, they do not total upward of 700,000, as some sources claimed. About the issue of synthetic squalene antibodies, Vesser declared:
"I can say, categorically, that squalene was not an adjuvant that was in any of the vaccines that were used by the Department of Defense at the time.... The department has never used anything but FDA-approved [adjuvants] to its vaccines. And that was what the troops got. They got U.S. vaccine."
Vesser then dropped this item:
. . "I've been told that recently there's been a small use of squalene as an adjuvant in some anti-malarial vaccine that some 50 test volunteers have been exposed to, [but] that this vaccine has never been used [during the war]. None of this happened at the time of the gulf war. That is recent. That's all I can say on the subject."
. This assertion that squalene has been used as an adjuvant in experimental tests on humans was not picked up by the press even though it was issued by a senior DoD official and previously was unrevealed information -- the use of squalene and the use of human "volunteers" for military experiments with immunization programs, antimalarial or otherwise.
Despite repeated requests to Vesser and others at DoD, the government has refused to divulge any other information on squalene uses or experimental immunization programs and what types of volunteers (and how many) have been used over the years.
Which brings the story back to some basic questions the Defense Department has been stonewalling. For example, although a synthetic version of a compound should be just about identical to the original, say pharmaceutical manufacturers and medical experts contacted by Insight, sometimes a twist or a turn or an added sequence or element appears in the synthetic version that doesn't appear in the original. This seems to be the case with synthetic squalene: Antibodies found in blood samples of Persian Gulf War veterans -- those who served overseas and those who never left the United States -- match only with a synthetic version and not with naturally produced squalene.
Why? Insight doesn't know but is trying to find out through molecular and microbiological tests, as well as interviews with makers of the synthetic versions of squalene. To date, the manufacturers have declined to provide information because of claimed proprietary interests.
That said, could the tests employed to detect synthetic squalene be faulty or otherwise render false-positive readings for a substance that occurs naturally in humans but, for whatever reason, suddenly has become "foreign" enough in the body to spur antibody development? Insight also is in the process of testing the assays -- yet again -- to determine whether the laboratory tests are faulty and to identify any other indicators that may give clues about why antibodies for synthetic squalene are showing up in the blood of veterans stricken with gulf-war syndrome.
Pending such reevaluations and additional information, what is the significance of the initial laboratory tests that detected those antibodies? We don't yet know and neither do the scientists involved in the testing. Speculation, assuming the testing assays remain correct, is that the compound was used as an adjuvant in an inoculation given to soldiers before, during and/or immediately after the Persian Gulf War. Given that the military has denied using any adjuvant except alum, how else could synthetic squalene antibodies have developed in the bloodstreams of soldiers, especially those who are the most ill?
When Insight raised the issue and reported the preliminary test results, which were derived from approximately 450 blood samples taken from a representative cross-section of soldiers involved or called into action for the Persian Gulf War, we expressed bafflement about finding something that 1) should not be there, that 2) the government said it never put there and 3) that generated antibodies to a product that is not approved for use in humans for anything but the most carefully monitored experimentation.
Insight also stated that despite repeated attempts to get government assistance to explain, knock down or confirm the preliminary test results, the military establishment declined assistance. Moreover, the military brass formally denied it had ever used squalene in any way, shape or form.
Although we were able to clear several layers of smokescreen put up by government officials concerning the uses of squalene as an experimental adjuvant in tests run out of the National Institutes of Health and the Walter Reed Institute, we were not able to get anyone in the military to state on the record who, what, when, where, why and how they used artificial squalene. The only available information comes from medical journals and military and civilian doctors who have confirmed some of the experimental uses of the synthetic squalene as an adjuvant in research for such diseases as HIV and herpes.
Prior to publishing the first story, Insight supplied information about early test results -- and subsequently draft galleys of the story -- to officials at the Defense Department, Veterans Administration and the Department of Health and Human Services. All were asked for input and to consider running their own tests to determine whether "official" research would reproduce the discovery of antibodies to the synthetic squalene in the sick veterans.
In all situations, the departments and the various agencies not only declined Insight's overtures but threw up walls of silence immediately upon receiving the materials. Prior to this, many officials in these departments and agencies had cooperated or engaged in discussions of possible causes for gulf-war syndrome.
The only exception to the official no comment/no response attitude was Timothy Gerrity, a director for health services at the Veterans Administration, who said he would be surprised if the antibody tests were positive but, if they were, he would pursue the matter. And vigorously.
Whereas prior to publication officials in Washington were willing and eager to speak, such willingness halted after the preliminary test results began to come in. Why? And why has the stonewalling continued since publication of the first story, except for the now-and-again mantra that "we never used it" and therefore it can't be there -- as in Vesser's comments?
The search for answers to the mystery of gulf-war syndrome continues. Many analysts believe the answer will involve chemical-weapons exposure in some fashion -- but everyone outside official circles is taking care to say they are guessing. One reason is that so many records are missing. To their credit, the House and Senate veterans committees plan hearings about this for early fall, and the General Accounting Office is continuing to probe.
Part of these reviews will include questions first raised by Insight linked to the synthetic squalene lab results. Meanwhile: How did something that shouldn't be in those sick soldiers get there if, as the government says, it never was used?