10 October 2020
First published Friday 27 October 2006
Secret UK ‘bio-weapon’ tests revealed
Defence scientists secretly tested E.coli bacteria as a possible biological weapon in and around two British towns, documents revealed today.
Between winter 1965 and November 1967 a series of Government trials involving the release of “microthreads” covered in the bacteria were carried out near Swindon and Southampton.
The experiments are detailed in the 1966 Ministry of Defence report on the Microbiological Research Establishment at Porton Down, Wilts.
It is being released for public viewing for the first time today at the National Archives in Kew, south west London.
The paper discusses the “production of micro-organisms for weapons systems”, suggesting that the “excellent quality and reproducibility” of E.coli indicated “highly satisfactory results” could be achieved.
Preliminary experiments were conducted in winter 1965 in and around Southampton, with follow-up tests the next summer.
In September, similar experiments were performed in Swindon “which was selected because it is a reasonably large inland industrial city in the midst of a large rural area.”
The tests were designed to establish how well the bacteria would survive in different climate and atmosphere conditions.
Another 12 trials were conducted in November and December in Southampton to see if there was any relationship between pollution and the survival of E.coli.
Five stations were deployed in each of trial, one upwind of the city, one in the centre, and three at different distances downwind, the report said.
There appears to be no mention of whether the bacteria infected anybody during the course of the trials.
The report says that no cases of laboratory infections had been detected overall at the MRE in 1966, while other safety activities were “too trivial to deserve special mention.”
Some forms of E.coli, such as 0157, which first appeared in Britain in the 1980s, can be deadly. The MoD scientists used E.coli 162.
E.coli 0157 is normally passed on by consuming infected food or drink.
Porton Down has previously been at the centre of controversy over its tests of chemicals on humans in the 1950s.
An inquest jury in November 2004 concluded unanimously that Leading Aircraftman Ronald Maddison, 20, from Consett, County Durham, was unlawfully killed in May 1953.
He died shortly after drops of the nerve gas Sarin were placed on his arms at the laboratory.