Project Whitecoat: Human Testing Done with Care

April 03, 1994|By ANN LoLORDO

In the service of his country, Army Pvt. Thomas M. Kopko sat on a platform in the middle of the Utah salt flats, amid cages of noisy, scratching guinea pigs, and waited for a germ cloud to waft through the darkness. Soon, the 20-year-old soldier and the other medical research volunteers from Fort Detrick in Maryland were inhaling infectious Q fever bacteria.

Today, at 59, Mr. Kopko can still remember how he instinctively held his breath as his commanding officers slipped on their gas masks during the 1955 project. He can still recall the bacteria moving like "a soft damp mist" across the desert and the pre-dawn flight home to Fort Detrick, the headquarters of the military's biological warfare research in Frederick County.

For nearly two decades, Seventh-day Adventists like Tom Kopko were volunteers in America's little-known Cold War fight to protect its troops from germ warfare.

They took part in experiments like the secret open-air test in Utah -- one of the few conducted beyond the fenced, barbed-wire perimeter of the Army's research and development center for biological warfare at Fort Detrick. The code name was Project Whitecoat, and 2,200 soldiers were involved between 1954 and 1973. Decades later, the extent of harm done to the soldiers still is not certain -- the Army has done no follow-up on the volunteers.

But now, as a presidential panel and congressional committees investigate government-financed Cold War experiments on humans -- particularly those involving radiation -- Project Whitecoat may well serve as an example of military propriety and care in the area of human testing, according to interviews with more than 30 former participants, seven physicians familiar with the program and a review of military, church and historical documents.

The Adventist soldiers, who served as non-combatants in observance of their religious conviction against bearing arms, were used to help develop vaccines to treat American troops exposed to a biological agent or an infectious disease. By the time the program ceased in 1973 with the end of the draft, Whitecoat volunteers had participated in studies on Q fever, tularemia, Venezuelan encephalomyelitis, typhus, Rocky Mountain spotted fever and other exotic diseases.

"They said you wouldn't die. And I didn't die," Mr. Kopko recalled of his participation in a study on Q fever, a flu-like, body-aching disease that could cripple a platoon. "I figured this was one way to serve my country. That's why I did it."

Mr. Kopko, a former Adventist chaplain now living in Florida, never contracted the fever during Project Whitecoat, one of the few conducted in a mock battlefield setting. But dozens of Project Whitecoat subjects did become ill. Treated with antibiotics, most recovered with no recurring health problems. But a few veterans today worry that White- coat service compromised their health or may yet. Many of those same experiments, however, expanded the world's knowledge of infectious diseases and how to treat them, say specialists in the field.

"A number of vaccines were developed and refined there, and they had terrific civilian applications," said Dr. Frank Cal- ia, vice dean of the University of Maryland medical school and a military physician at Fort Detrick in 1967-1969. "The folks at Detrick at that time were a group of outstanding investigators. It was a very exciting time to be there."

Project Whitecoat flourished during the heyday of the Cold War, it was the legacy of another war that shaped the program's concern for the rights of its volunteers. Detrick's researchers were "very conscious" of the 1947 Nuremberg Code that called for the voluntary, competent and informed consent of subjects in medical experiments, said Dr. Abram S. Beneson, who served as director of experimental medicine at Detrick in 1954-1955.

"And we were very, very careful to stick to it," he said.

The consent forms included a clause warning a volunteer that an outcome of a study, "though an unlikely outcome, could be their death," said Dr. Beneson, 80, a professor emeritus of public health at San Diego State University. Army lawyers told Dr. Beneson that he was wasting his time because the form wouldn't hold up legally if challenged.

"From the legal point of view [it may be a waste of time]," Dr. Beneson said he replied. "But from a moral point of view, I'm not deluding anyone."

The Army's history of properly informing soldiers of the risks associated with military experiments has been a checkered one. Neither the infantrymen who were exposed to mustard gas and other agents in 1940s experiments, nor the soldiers given LSD and other chemicals at Edgewood Arsenal in the 1950s and 1960s, were adequately briefed about the inherent risks.

The same complaint has not been made of the Army Medical Unit's work in Project Whitecoat.

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