What are Russia’s biological weapons claims and what’s actually happening? | United Nations | The Guardian



What are independent world bodies saying?

The World Health Organization (WHO) has said it is unaware of activity by Ukraine violating any international treaty, including the ban on biological weapons.

The UN high commissioner for disarmament, Izumi Nakamitsu, confirmed that the UN was not aware of any biological weapons programmes in Ukraine. Nakamitsu pointed to the Biological Weapons Convention, which has prohibited the development and use of biological weapons since 1975. The convention was backed by then president Richard Nixon, who in 1969 also put a stop to the US developing its own offensive biological weapons.

So do bio labs exist inside Ukraine, and is the US supporting them?

Yes, and yes. Ukraine does operate biological laboratories which receive US funding. The US undersecretary of state Victoria Nuland affirmed those facts in a Senate foreign relations committee hearing this week in which the Republican senator Marco Rubio asked her directly whether Ukraine had biological weapons.

Nuland did not answer the question head on. “Ukraine has biological research facilities,” she replied, adding that there was concern that Russian forces were trying to gain control of the labs. “We are working with the Ukrainians on how they can prevent any of those research materials from falling into the hands of Russian forces.”

Nuland’s comments were seized upon by far-right commentators as further evidence of a secret US-Ukraine plot. In fact, US funding to the laboratories had its roots in the fall of the Soviet Union after which money was pumped into Ukraine and other former Soviet countries to help them transfer scientific skills away from weapons programmes towards public health initiatives.

The scheme was originally known as the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) programme, but is now more commonly referred to as the biological engagement programme. It has been successful in supporting former Soviet and other countries to fulfil public health obligations.

“This is one of the best things that we do,” Dr Gigi Gronvall, senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told the Guardian.

Most of the work of the Ukraine labs today, Gronvall said, involved surveillance of diseases in animals and people as an early-warning system for illnesses such as African swine fever, which is endemic in the region. “We know pathogens don’t respect borders, so helping to put out public health fires before they become too big is an advantage to all of us,” she said.

Do the Ukraine laboratories store dangerous biological agents?

Yes, it appears so. As part of their work researching diseases the bio labs do seem to hold dangerous pathogens. We know that because WHO is urging Ukraine to destroy any highly dangerous agents in its laboratories to avoid the risk of a disastrous outbreak should one of the labs be hit under Russian attack.

“As part of this work, WHO has strongly recommended to the ministry of
health in Ukraine and other responsible bodies to destroy high-threat
pathogens to prevent any potential spills,” the UN health agency said.

The WHO has worked in Ukraine for several years helping the bio labs improve their safety and security, so it knows what it is talking about.

If Russian claims of a secret bioweapons programme are fake news, does that mean there is nothing to worry about?

No. In addition to the threat of pathogens held in Ukrainian labs leaking out or falling into the hands of Russian forces, there is the threat of Russia potentially launching its own biological weapons attack. The assessment of the US state department is that Russia continues to maintain an offensive biological weapons programme in violation of the convention that it has signed.

Earlier this week, the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, accused Russia under Vladimir Putin of having a “long and well-documented track record” of using chemical weapons, pointing to the poisoning of the opposition leader Alexei Navalny and Russia’s support of the Syrian regime while it deployed chemical weapons. She went on to warn that Moscow’s claim of a secret biological weapons programme in Ukraine could in fact be laying the foundations for a Russian chemical or biological weapons assault inside Ukraine.

That possibility leaves even seasoned experts rattled. “I hope that this is more of a disinformation talking point than an actual thing,” Gronvall said. “I guess we shall see.”

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