It's simple - we cannot trust ANYONE to tell the truth over deadly biological weapons
Spectre of secret labs points to need to close legal and ethical gaps
By Lauren Michaels
LAST week a top US official made the extraordinary admission that “Ukraine has biological research facilities” that are dangerous enough to cause concern about whether they could fall into Russian hands.
US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Victoria Nuland, who has long been involved in US activities in Ukraine, was appearing at a meeting of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on March 8. When US Senator Marco Rubio, no doubt hoping to squash speculation on the topic, asked her whether Ukraine had chemical or biological weapons, she replied: “Er, Ukraine has, er, biological research facilities, which, in fact, we are now quite concerned Russian troops, Russian forces, may be seeking to, er, gain control of. So, we are working with the Ukrainians on how they can prevent any of those research materials from falling into the hands of, er, Russian forces should they approach.”
Previously, the US had always firmly denied claims that there were any biological labs in Ukraine.
The news of Nuland’s revelation began to spread worldwide, but interestingly did not gain as much coverage as might be expected in the larger media outlets (officially approved or corporate). The US moved to stem the flow of news, using diversion tactics rather than directly referring to what Nuland had said. This avoided directly contradicting Nuland and drawing any more attention to her disclosure and instead refuted the substance of what she said, blaming Russia.
State Department spokesperson Ned Price issued an official statement warning that the Kremlin was spreading “outright lies” and emphasising “the United States does not own or operate any chemical or biological laboratories in Ukraine”. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby, in turn, commented that Russia’s claims that there were bio-weapons labs in Ukraine were “laughable”.
The media (corporate and/or officially approved) and an army of “fact-checkers” then sprung into action, denying that any biological weapons laboratories have been operating in Ukraine under US direction and blaming the idea on Russian propaganda or conspiracy theories.
So within the space of two days, there was a total turnaround in the US Government’s official position on a matter of crucial importance. First, there were no biological laboratories at all in Ukraine, then there were biological laboratories that were of concern, then once again, there were no biological laboratories in Ukraine.
There is no doubt that the US has been working with Ukraine in the area of “cooperative biological research” for some time. A publicly available document, downloadable from the US Government website, shows that the US Department of Defence and Ukraine’s health ministry signed a $15million agreement in 2005 to support research into biological weapons in Kiev, Lvov and Odessa.
The document shows that US Government provided materials and training for “cooperative biological research, biological threat agent detection and response and assistance for improving biological material protection, control and accountability in order to reduce the risk of theft, or unauthorised use of dangerous pathogens located at the facilities in Ukraine”.
The Ukrainian Government was required to withhold details from public disclosure if the US Department of Defence regarded them as “sensitive”. During the period of implementation, the US Defence Department was to be given access to certain “information and technology” which were state secrets in Ukraine.
Interestingly, this document was signed in 2005, nine years before the 2014 ousting of Ukraine’s democratically elected President Viktor Yanukovych and the Ukrainian Government in what is variously known as the Maidan Revolution, the Revolution of Dignity, or a West-backed coup d’etat, which in turn led to the internal Ukrainian war and, after eight years of failed diplomacy, to Russia’s current military action.
Moving back to the present, recent evidence that the US has been working with Ukraine in biological research is within easy reach on the US Embassy in Ukraine’s website, which publicly announces its collaboration with Ukraine “to consolidate and secure pathogens and toxins of security concern and to continue to ensure Ukraine can detect and report outbreaks caused by dangerous pathogens before they pose security or stability threats”.
Of course, the US describes this research in a way that sounds reassuringly safe and benign. In the aftermath of Nuland’s disclosure, US Director of National Intelligence, Avril Haines, gave an assurance that the biological laboratories in Ukraine were for biodefence and public health. The US Government provided assistance related to biosafety, as it had done globally with various other countries, she explained.
But why would the US be worried about Russian forces gaining control of harmless and public health-related research? Also, Nuland was asked specifically whether Ukraine had chemical or biological weapons. Why did her reply contain no denial that there were weapons, but instead simply confirm the existence of “biological research facilities”?
There must be something in the labs that is causing the US to be, as Nuland describes it, “quite concerned”. What might it be?
One plausible explanation is that they contain innovations that Russia itself has not yet developed in terms of sophisticated biological weaponry or dual-use research that has the potential to be employed militarily.
Scientists are making rapid progress with a technique called “gene splicing”. This is a type of genetic engineering which alters the genetic makeup of organisms. While some of the scientific research involves bioengineering pathogens for medical purposes, the techniques can also be used to develop deadly biological weapons.
Gene-editing techniques, such as CRISPR, can be weaponised. They can, for example, improve human performance in warfare operations, or alter human biology, cognition and behaviour.
Neuroscientist James Giordano has pointed out that, on a global scale, countries could embed these genetic modification programmes within academic and/or commercial research and development infrastructures to make dual-use applications difficult to detect. He is among many scientists and experts who have warned there is an urgent need to update biological and chemical weapons legislation to close legal and ethical loopholes.
Can we trust politicians of any country to tell us the truth regarding potentially deadly and unethical weapons programmes? Such military activities are usually state secrets and countries generally serve their own national interests, rather than those of the individuals, or the world as a whole.
Both Russia and China have alleged that Ukraine has dangerous biological weapons laboratories. Earlier this month, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said there were 336 US-controlled labs in 30 countries, including 26 in Ukraine alone, containing a large quantity of dangerous viruses.
Foreign Office spokesman Zhao Lijian added that the US ran the labs “using such pretexts as cooperating to reduce biological safety risks and strengthening global public health” and also conducted many biological military activities at its Fort Detrick base in the US.
The Russian Foreign Ministry announced that during its operation in Ukraine it had found documents proving that Ukrainian biological laboratories near the Russian borders had been working on developing biological weapons.
Subsequently, Russia called an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss its allegations that the US was secretly developing biological weapons in Ukrainian labs.
At the meeting on March 11, Russia’s ambassador to the UN, Vasily Nebenzya, described alarming discoveries the Russian military had allegedly made in Ukraine, including a plot to use insects, migratory birds and bats to spread pathogens.
Also, under the pretext of curing Covid-19, blood serum from Slavic people had been sent from Ukraine to the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in the United States, he said, noting that there were biological agents that could selectively target specific ethnic groups.
Nebenzya added that Moscow had documents confirming that Ukraine, with US support, was operating at least 30 biological laboratories, at which dangerous experiments using synthetic biology were being conducted to strengthen the pathogenic qualities of the plague, anthrax, cholera and other lethal diseases.
He urged his European colleagues to consider “the very real danger” of the uncontrolled spread of bio agents from Ukraine, given the existence of radical nationalist groups in the country with an interest in them.
Noting that his colleagues would likely dismiss all this as fake news and propaganda, Nebenzya cautioned that, in the event of any incident involving chemical weapons, the Pentagon had told its Ukrainian colleagues to immediately accuse the Russian armed forces.
US ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield strenuously denied the Russian allegations, accusing Moscow of attempting to use the Security Council to “legitimise disinformation and deceive people”.
The United Nations High Representative of Disarmament Affairs, Izumi Makamitsu, told the Security Council meeting that it was not aware of any biological weapons programmes, largely thanks to the Biological Weapons Convention, which prohibits their development, production, acquisition, transfer, stockpiling and use. But she then added: “Situations such as this demonstrate the need to strengthen the Biological Weapons Convention.”
The alarming truth is that there is no way of being certain whether dangerous biological weapons research is going on or not, in Ukraine, or anywhere else, because no one is checking for violations of the Biological Weapons Convention.
Potentially dangerous biological research is being carried out, with inadequate international regulation. There is an urgent need to close legal and ethical gaps. Unfortunately, countries have so far been unable to agree on how to strengthen the Biological Weapons Convention, which was signed as long ago as 1972.