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Fake News: A chance to learn about forbidden places

Vet Advice with Dr. Ron Clarke

The story appeared in the Scottish Sunday Herald, Saturday, March 31, 2018.

“A group of Russian oligarchs is bidding to buy Gruinard Island off the northwest coast of Scotland. Gruinard is known as Anthrax Island after being used for testing biological weapons during the Second World War. It is uninhabited today due to fears of ongoing contamination. Little is known about the group of Russian oligarchs bidding to buy the island. No clear picture has emerged about why the three Russian tycoons — who are said to be extremely close to Vladimir Putin — wish to buy the island. The group officially put in their bid this morning before noon.”

Until the story piqued my interest, I had never heard of Gruinard Island. An online encyclopedia described Gruinard as an oval-shaped island approximately two km long by one km wide, located in Gruinard Bay, halfway between Gairloch and Ullapool. The British government had used it 75 to 80 years ago for bioterrorism research. Mention of the island appears in the written logs of a Presbyterian Scottish pastor around 1560, portraying Gruinard as, “Clan MacKenzie territory, full of woods, good for fostering thieves and rebels.” Gruinard, now treeless, sits uninhabited since the 1920s.

The Anthrax Island story proved to be a hoax, an annual April Fools’ joke by the Scottish Sunday Herald. ProMed took it hook, line and sinker. So did I!

In 1942, during the Second World War, British military scientists conducted germ warfare research on Gruinard. The British government investigated the feasibility of using anthrax in bioweapons. Military scientists looked for remote, uninhabited spaces for research, knowing anthrax spores potentially represent lifelong infectivity. They deemed Gruinard suitable, and requisitioned it from its owners.

A 50-member team took 80 sheep to the island. Bombs filled with highly pathogenic anthrax spores exploded and infectious clouds floated over the tethered sheep. Within days of exposure, animals began to die.

Scientists concluded that a large release of anthrax spores would pollute enemy cities, rendering them uninhabitable for decades, assumptions supported when initial efforts to decontaminate Gruinard failed.

Starting in 1986, the Brits made a determined effort to decontaminate the island using 280 tonnes of formaldehyde solution diluted in seawater. They also removed topsoil from all disposal sites. On April 24, 1990, after 48 years of quarantine the British government removed the warning signs and declared Gruinard a safe place. Heirs of the original owner repurchased the island for the original sale price of £500. To date, there have been no cases of anthrax in island flocks.

In one of the most remote spots on earth, a desiccated island in the Aral Sea, lie the remains of the world’s largest biological warfare testing ground. Russia relinquished Vozrozhdeniye Island to Kazakhstan and Uzbeki­stan in 1992. Since then, it has remained uninhabited; its laboratory complex deserted by all but the Kazakh scavengers who pilfer its parts.

The island was briefly used as a bioweapons testing range in the 1930s, abandoned, then resurrected in 1954 when Soviets renewed their interest in loading human pathogens into missiles and bombs. Vozrozhdeniye Island became a place where Cold War Russia tinkered with its deadly arsenal.

The only access to the island now is in the company of the scavengers who ply the waters of a shrinking Aral Sea. Relics of life lie in the dust, remnants of the world’s largest biological warfare testing ground, now abandoned.

Three-foot-high concrete posts, oriented in the direction of the prevailing winds outline the “range.” Chains dangle from rusted poles where horses and donkeys were tied awaiting deadly clouds of aerosols released upwind. The place is quiet and eerie.

Canada has its own “Island of Sadness,” a rocky, nondescript atoll in the St. Lawrence, upstream from Quebec City. A marble cross stands on the main part of Grosse Ile in memory of thousands who died.

The first inscription on the column reads:

“In this isolated spot lies the remains of 5,424 persons, who fleeing the pest and famine in Ireland, in the year 1847, found nothing but a grave in America.”

The atmosphere is charged with mystery and gloom, the marble cross a symbol of the more than 5,000 Irish who died of typhus spread by lice in the holds of coffin ships during the two- to three-month journey to North America. An additional 8,000 were buried at sea. Many more left to rot in the holds of ships, unloaded when ships docked at Grosse Ile. Workers were paid between $1 and $4 per body. Everywhere amongst blueberry bushes, poison ivy and raspberry canes are the shallow graves of people who ran amok with fever — buried where they fell. Two other cemeteries on the island hold victims of cholera, TB and small pox.

Cholera Bay marks the site of cholera’s arrival in North America from Europe in 1932, spread initially from India by ships traveling the globe before knowledge about “infection” and “bacterial transmission” existed. Bodies laid to rest in shallow graves on Cholera Bay were eventually swept to sea by tides.

Every footstep on the island shadows a grave. More than 15,000 people are buried here.

Grosse Ile served as a human quarantine station, a biological warfare research facility, a high security virus laboratory housing pathogens like rinderpest, hog cholera and foot and mouth disease, a cattle quarantine station during the import of European breeds to Canada, and a training ground for veterinarians on foreign animal diseases. It is now a National Historic Site.

It’s good we are reminded about the grim realities of disease and germ warfare. Research continues unabated, much of it justified as defense against the use of biological weapons by our enemies, and the creation of forbidden places.

About the author

Columnist

Dr. Ron Clarke prepares this column on behalf of the Western Canadian Association of Bovine Practitioners. Suggestions for future articles can be sent to Canadian Cattlemen ([email protected]) or WCABP ([email protected]).

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