SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — Black Americans are more hesitant than whites to take the COVID vaccine. Reasons for that hit close to home in Savannah, and include a classified military operation in the 1950s that dropped hundreds of thousands of mosquitoes — mosquitoes that many believe were infected with disease — on Carver Village.
They didn’t tell anybody, and it happened,” said Chatham County Commission Chairman Chester Ellis. “And so that leaves some apprehension, especially when you have residents of that area who’ve been there since the ’50s. And so my job as neighborhood president, and also as chairman of the County Commission, is to kind of calm the storm down to let them know that this vaccination is not like that.”
The Kaiser Family Foundation, which has been tracking attitudes about the vaccine for months, indicates 43% of Black adults in the U.S. are taking a “wait and see” approach to the vaccine, according to results of a poll completed Jan. 18. That compares to 26% of white adults in the same poll who say that when an FDA approved vaccine for COVID-19 is available to them for free, they would wait and see how it is working for other people.
Caution is a rational approach to centuries of structural racism, said Savannah resident and activist Natavia Sanders.
“This has been the only system of America that American descendants of slaves know, and therefore there are automatic cautions to survival,” Sanders said. It only makes sense for Blacks to question vaccines and studies, she said, after “countless times of being the study (subject) for things without their consent or knowledge.”
The infamous Tuskegee Study in which hundreds of Black men in Alabama went untreated for syphilis without their informed consent is just one injustice. In Savannah, a secret military program in the Cold War called Operation Big Buzz tested the viability of deploying mosquitoes as a delivery system of disease warfare by dropping thousands of mosquitoes on the Black neighborhood of Carver Village.
WHAT WAS THE ‘BIG BUZZ’ EXPERIMENT?
A United Press International newspaper article reported about it when the documents were declassified in 1980.
“Swarms of mosquitoes, the type notorious for transmitting yellow fever, were released in Georgia and Florida in the 1950s by the Army to see if the insects could be used as biological warfare weapons, documents show,” the Oct. 29, 1980 article states. “However, none of the mosquitoes, specially bred by the Army Chemical Corps, was infected when released in Savannah, Ga., in 1956 and at Avon Park, Fla., in 1956 and 1958, according to declassified documents made available Tuesday.”
The declassified military document is available online at http://bit.ly/operationbigbuzz. On each page a header of “Secret” is crossed out and instead stamped “Unclassified.”
“The Chemical Corps tested the practicality of employing Aedes aegypti mosquitoes to carry a (biological warfare) agent in several ways. In April – November 1956 the Corps ran trials in Savannah, Georgia, by releasing uninfected female mosquitoes in a residential area, and then, with co-operation of people in the neighborhood, estimating how many mosquitoes entered houses and bit people,” reads the document dated January 1960 and titled “Summary of Major Events and Problems, United States Army Chemical Corps.”
The document goes on to report another deployment of hundreds of thousands of mosquitoes at Avon Park Air Force Base in Florida, summing up the purpose of the experiment:
“And while these tests were made with uninfected mosquitoes, it is a fairly safe assumption that infected mosquitoes could be spread equally well.”
But some Savannahians, including Ellis, have their doubts about whether the test mosquitoes were infected. He and others investigated the issue while applying for historic designation for the neighborhood.
“And I know some people will say, ‘Well, there were mosquitoes, but they weren’t infected,’” he said. “But they were.”