The Most Effective Bioweapon of World War II (And Why We Can’t Do That Again)

Her name was Anne Miller. She was from Connecticut, age 33, very sick and likely to die.

Anne had a streptococcal infection. Her body temperature spiked at times to 107; that alone should’ve killed her.

Meanwhile, Anne’s blood was filled with microbial poison. Transfusions and sulfa drugs were ineffective. Per medical protocols, doctors at Yale-New Haven Medical Center notified her family and called for a pastor.

Still, one doctor had heard of an experimental drug. It was a military development, subject to strict secrecy. He only knew about it because he had a friend who had a friend…

Anne’s doctor called Merck Pharmaceuticals in New Jersey. Eventually he found someone who would make a life-and-death decision. The next day, a special package arrived at the hospital…

On Thursday, March 12, doctors at Yale administered the first dose of Merck’s medicine to Anne. The next day, Friday the 13th, Anne’s fever began to abate. She received additional doses of the drug over the weekend.

On Monday morning, March 16, Anne called for a nurse. She wanted breakfast.

Anne recovered and went on to live another 57 years. She died in 1999 at age 90. The New York Times published her obituary.

Anne Miller was the first patient ever saved by penicillin. Indeed, Anne was the first successful test patient — “patient zero,” one might say — for one of the most powerful bioweapons of the World War II.

Anne Miller received those precious doses of penicillin in March 1942.

By then, the U.S. was three months into the war.

But it had been raging in Europe since 1939. Germany had conquered Western Europe, bombed Britain and invaded the Soviet Union. In Asia, Japan had invaded China in the mid-1930s. By March 1942, Japan was rolling across Southeast Asia and through the Pacific theater.

Soldiers across the world were dying of infections. Military doctors begged for some way to save them.

So nations went to work, starting their search with any promising ideas that had been shelved for one reason or another. War shines a light on undeveloped ideas, after all. It spurs funding, allocation of resources, functional development and implementation.

That was the case with penicillin.

While it was first used to cure a patient in 1942, the idea originated in 1928, when a British scientist named Alexander Fleming identified the basic penicillin compound. Then in the 1930s, other scientists at Oxford University further pursued the concept.

In 1940, with war raging in Europe and the threat of bombs dropping on their labs, the Oxford scientists left Britain and came to the U.S. to continue their medical research.

The Brits persuaded several U.S. pharmaceutical companies to participate in antibiotic efforts, including Merck, Squibb & Sons, Eli Lilly, Pfizer, Lederle Labs and others.

By 1942 each company had teams working on penicillin. But the drug was not in production. Indeed, the few doses administered by the Yale doctors to Anne Miller over one week in March were experimental. They constituted half of all the penicillin in the world at the time.

But after success of the Merck product, and news of Miller’s full, seemingly miraculous recovery, the American pharmaceutical industry went into production.

Even then, it wasn’t easy…

The U.S. economy in World War II was quite different from what we see today. In many respects, the U.S. government controlled the economy. Nothing big or industrial happened without fitting into a government plan.

The U.S. government controlled everything from steel output to railway transport — not to mention concrete, lumber, labor or anything else you needed to build a factory. And when it came to manufacturing medicines — penicillin in particular —  Uncle Sam controlled the scale-up, too.

Per the U.S. government’s “War Production Board,” companies including Merck, Pfizer and Eli Lilly received allocations to build penicillin plants. And the result was spectacular.

In mid-1942, a few months post-Anne Miller, the U.S. had sufficient penicillin to treat just 10 patients. But two years later, by June 1944 and the D-Day invasion of Normandy, U.S. penicillin stocks numbered over 2.3 million doses. By the fall 1945, as war ended, U.S. penicillin stockpiles were up in the billions. (No typo: “billions.”)

As a result of penicillin, by the end of World War II hundreds of thousands of U.S. and Allied soldiers survived battlefield wounds that would otherwise have been fatal, or at best led to amputations.

Indeed, penicillin can be considered a bioweapon, in the sense that the U.S. had it and Germany and Japan did not. Penicillin conferred a battlefield advantage.

The U.S. Army estimates that absent penicillin, U.S. combat deaths in the war would’ve been at least 15% higher.

And in 1945, the Nobel Prize for Medicine was awarded jointly to Sir Alexander Fleming, Ernst Boris Chain and Sir Howard Walter Florey “for the discovery of penicillin and its curative effect in various infectious diseases.”

They just got the ball rolling, though. The effort to industrialize penicillin required tens of thousands of trained chemists, engineers and technicians. They came from the industrial heart of America. And they came up with mass-manufacturing processes to meet a medical-level of pharmaceutical quality, while running plants at wartime levels of output.

Novel innovations from these chemists and engineers included seemingly odd things. For example, the original method to cultivate penicillin involved using cantaloupe mold and mushroom spawn to enrich corn-steep liquor. This, plus “deep-tank” fermentation to permit mass-production at pharmaceutical levels of quality.

Penicillin is truly a World War II success story for America. At the end of the day, the factories were there. The people were there. The science and engineering worked. And penicillin came out in quantities sufficient to alter the timing and course of war.

Meanwhile, it was an added benefit that penicillin cured an array of sexually transmitted diseases.

wartime miracle drug

The wartime miracle drug.

Post-war, penicillin became a so-called “miracle drug” that propelled many U.S. pharmaceutical companies to world scale and into the industrial and investment limelight.

Well into the 1990s, U.S. industry produced pretty much all the antibiotics used in the U.S. There was the Pfizer plant in Groton, Connecticut. The Eli Lilly plant near Indianapolis. And Upjohn in Michigan.

Then came… China.

In the 1990s Chinese companies built new facilities on a scale that dwarfed older companies in the U.S., as well as in Europe. By the late 1990s and early 2000s, Chinese drug companies were dumping vast amounts of pharmaceutical products — virtually none of it “inspected” to U.S. quality standards — into U.S. markets at below-cost levels.

After China entered the World Trade Organization, Chinese products flowed in an industrial landslide —  a marketing wipeout that overwhelmed domestic competition.

American business culture has long emphasized “low prices!”. And the “free trade” crowd are happy to see imported goods land on U.S. piers and sell for less than the local competition. Everyone loves a bargain, right?

Of course, U.S. pharmaceutical buyers — and insurance companies that pay for drugs –— wanted low costs. And Chinese product was there, hovering at unprecedented low price points.

Some bargain, though…

China dumped uninspected product from obscure origins. And the U.S. government and other influential players looked the other way.

Domestic drug manufacturing plants simply could not compete. By the mid-2000s, U.S. pharmaceutical companies shuttered all domestic antibiotic plants. The last U.S. location was closed by Pfizer in 2004.

It’s not “just a little bit” of a cut-back in U.S. output. Essentially ALL antibiotic production in the U.S. is gone. Out of business. Employees laid off. Sold their houses. Moved away. Not there anymore.

When you go to the pharmacy to fill a prescription today, there’s over 90% probability that Chinese compounds and components go into your mouth. If you go to a clinic or hospital and receive intravenous antibiotics, that’s Chinese product entering your veins.

On a good day, the pills might have been pressed in a U.S. or European plant, but still from Chinese ingredients at uninspected Chinese plants.

Next time you have a prescription, ask the pharmacist or doctor where the drugs originated. Go ahead…

And more than likely, those pills you take home from the pharmacy were pressed and packaged in China, made from Chinese ingredients. The days of “American” drugs for Americans are long gone.

This goes for the U.S. military, too. The days of “American” penicillin for American soldiers are history. (Even allowing for advances in antibiotics, beyond penicillin; it’s nearly all Chinese now.)

Thirty years of globalization have killed off the heart and soul — essentially all — of the basic U.S. drug-making capability.

Instead, China now controls the supply chain for most medications. From pills in the blister packs down to the fundamental compounds that go into fermentation vessels, the ingredients are a product of China, Inc. And anymore, the human skills and knowledge-set are inside Chinese brains.

Keep in mind, these Chinese pharmaceutical plants and processes are not subject to any routine U.S. inspections. You just take your chances…

The U.S. government has been a poor steward of the American economy; certainly as regards the former jewel of the nation’s pharmaceutical industry. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration has watched the whole mess unfold, with little outcry and few “inspections” of Chinese production.

“Big Pharma” — the well-capitalized drug companies — are part of the fraud, too, by hiding facts and misrepresenting the source of most drugs that they sell.

Is there a silver lining to this dark cloud? Nope. Sorry. I can’t come up with anything to make you feel better. Although… in a future article, I’ll offer ideas for how the U.S. might work to change this adverse situation. It’ll be a long slog back up that hill, though.

The history of the U.S. pharmaceutical business certainly holds moments of brilliance, such as with penicillin and World War II. And there’s plenty of U.S. research ongoing; such as it’s not being stolen, hijacked or just given away to foreign competitors in the name of openness and scientific freedom.

But when it comes to the pills you pop into your mouth; it’s been a Chinese takeover. Blame the globalists who allowed China to kick in the door.

On that note, I rest my case.

That’s all for now…  Thank you for subscribing and reading.

Best wishes,

Byron King

Byron King
Managing Editor, Whiskey & Gunpowder

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Byron King

A Harvard-trained geologist and former aide to the United States Chief of Naval Operations, Byron King is our resident gold and mining expert, and we are proud to have him on board as the managing editor of Whiskey & Gunpowder.

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