While I was conducting a 2013 biographical interview with Willy Burgdorfer, PhD, the discoverer of the Lyme disease bacterium, he reluctantly confessed that he’d left something important out of his Lyme discovery articles. There was another bacterial perp at the scene of the mysterious outbreak of juvenile arthritis in Lyme, Connecticut, circa 1979. He nicknamed this new tick-borne organism (from the rickettsia genus) the “Swiss Agent,” after he found that many of the original Lyme patient blood samples reacted strongly to tests that identified a type of rickettsia found in Switzerland. Yet he never published these results, and he died before he could fully explain why.
The mysterious disappearance of the Swiss Agent intrigued me, and it propelled me into a three-year search for answers. I dug through 15 document archives across the country looking for evidence and began analyzing the original Lyme patient blood tests, letters between researchers, journal articles and tick-testing results from Long Island and Connecticut in the 1970s. Over the summer, I began sharing information with Charles Piller, an investigative reporter at STAT News, and you can read his excellent analysis and reporting of the evidence here.
The importance of the Swiss Agent is that it could be contributing to the confusion in Lyme disease diagnosis and testing that has plagued physicians and patients for nearly four decades. Emerging evidence shows that the European strain of the Swiss Agent, called Rickettsia helvetica, after the mythical warrior goddess of Switzerland, has been linked to a number of serious symptoms, including sudden cardiac death, meningitis, muscle soreness, facial palsy and deafness. There are no readily available tests for R. helvetica in the United States. In fact, no one is even looking for it, because Burgdorfer’s discovery was never published.
Ticks are sewers of infection, and in addition to transmitting Lyme disease, aka Borrelia burgdorferi, a tick can simultaneously transmit other serious disease agents such as rickettsias, viruses and babesias. In the U.S., testing usually starts with the two-step Lyme test, which can take several weeks to yield results. The next step is to test for co-infections. The problem with this strategy is that rickettsias are fast-moving bacteria that can sometimes send a person into a coma or to the grave in a few days if not treated promptly with antibiotics. What is desperately needed is a fast, unified test for all of the common tick-borne co-infections.
The outing of the Swiss Agent is a call to action for researchers and tick-borne disease test developers. Researchers need to cast a wider net to look for undiscovered tick-borne disease agents using state-of-the-art analytical tools. Test developers need to create faster, all-in-one tick-borne disease tests, moving beyond the decades-old unreliable antibody tests that are most commonly used.
Kris Newby is a science writer at Stanford School of Medicine and the senior producer of the award-winning documentary on Lyme disease, “Under Our Skin.”
Previously: Researchers identify new compounds with potential to combat Lyme disease, Stanford study finds Lyme disease among ticks in California parks and Hikers beware: New tick-borne disease discovered in Northern California parks
Photo by Kris Newby/Burgdorfer Archive of a page from Burgdorfer’s photo album that shows images of arthropod-borne disease research at the Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton, Montana. English translation: “Different Working Branches of Rocky Mountain Laboratories”