Russia is actively spreading fakes about there being U.S.-funded biological laboratories on the territory of Ukraine, which are allegedly tasked with creating new types of biological weapons.
Cornelia Silaghi, an employee at an actual biomedical research laboratory, debunks this myth.
For several weeks now, Russian propaganda has been actively promoting misinformation about Ukrainian biowarfare labs developing new types of biological weapons. The United States is, naturally, responsible for financing the work.
Last week, the narrative was stepped up a notch – and accusations about the creation of biological weapons came from the Russian Ministry of Defense, as opposed to ordinary vassal “journalists.” The Kremlin has officially accused Ukraine of developing the coronavirus, as well as working with African swine fever and anthrax.
The Ministry of Health of Ukraine in early March issued a refutation of these obviously absurd claims.
“Once again, we stress that there are no ‘American laboratories’ on the territory of Ukraine,” the Health Ministry’s statement reads.
“All laboratory capabilities existing in Ukraine fulfill only the common goal – the ... identification of pathogens of infectious diseases that have significant epidemic potential and/or international significance, and are subject to the regulation of international health regulations.”
Washington called these accusations "classic Russian propaganda", saying that such statements are "absurd" and "a bunch of malarkey." According to State Department spokesman Ned Price, Russia is “inventing false pretexts in an attempt to justify its own horrific actions in Ukraine.”
A few days ago, Russia raised the issue of biowarfare laboratories in Ukraine at a meeting of the UN Security Council. However, Russian propaganda failed there too – the organization's High Representative for Disarmament Issues, Izumi Nakamitsu, said that the United Nations was "not aware" of any biological weapons program in Ukraine.
The UN added that there is no evidence of this, so Russia's accusations can be considered baseless. Member countries called the Russian allegation of biological weapons in Ukraine "a lie" and "utter nonsense."
However, the Russian propaganda machine is grinding along. Now Rospotrebnadzor, the state consumer rights protection and health and safety supervisor, has joined in with radiation and chemical protection troops – they allege Ukraine is trying to poison the enemy with tuberculosis.
This fake was also picked up by China, although not yet officially. Several local media outlets, including the state news agency Xinhua, announced at once that there are indeed bioweapons labs on the territory of Ukraine, in which scientists are working to learn how to spread pathogens through animals.
Even the Ukrainian Ministry of Health does not refute the fact of the existence of biomedical research facilities on the territory of Ukraine, a completely typical installation in any country.
However, as noted above, their raison d'être is to identify the causative agents of infectious diseases, which over time can develop into an epidemic. Simply put, these are studies of potentially dangerous diseases and their vectors. They do not conduct work into research on biological weapons.
This is also emphasized by Cornelia Silaghi, a professor at the Friedrich Loeffler Institute, who since 2020 has been working in collaboration with colleagues from Ukraine at the Institute of Experimental and Clinical Veterinary Medicine in Kharkiv.
Scientists have been surveying bat parasites to learn what types of bacteria Ukrainian bats harbored. This should be the first step in identifying any potential threats to human health.
The researchers collected 140 fleas, ticks, and flies, plucked from bats captured in the eastern regions of Ukraine. The parasites were placed in ethanol and sent to the Friedrich Loeffler Institute in Germany, where DNA analysis revealed the identity of pathogens such as Rickettsia, a common tick-borne bacterium. The results of this work were presented at the conference of the German Veterinary Society in 2021.
“It was very basic epidemiological research,” says Silaghi. Now, however, Russian propaganda is trying to pass off her work as part of a covert Western-funded bioweapon development project.
During a UN meeting convened by Russia, Russian diplomat Vassily Nebenzia stated that "bats were considered as carriers of potential bioweapon agents." He said the fate of the bat and bacteria samples is unknown, suggesting that "they could be stolen for terrorist purposes or sold at the black market." As proof of his theory, he presented an agreement to transfer samples to a German institute.
Silaghi dismissed these accusations, calling them rubbish: "I know their fate – they are in my freezer." Moreover, all pathogens were destroyed by the ethanol that was used to preserve the parasites.
On a different note, the scientist stated that her project did not receive any U.S. funding.
“What’s been made of it—this bioweapon stuff—is completely crazy,” Silaghi said.
She was not in a position to say how the Russian Ministry of Defense could have got hold of the agreement on the transfer of samples to the German institute. Kharkiv biologist Anton Vlaschenko, who helped Silaghi with her work, suspects that one of the team's email accounts was hacked by the Russians.
“We don’t have such genetic laboratories that we would need for biological weapons,” Vlaschenko notes, as such an installation would require state-of-the-art technology, only found in select and bespoke labs around the world - not veterinary clinics in Kharkiv.
“It’s very funny to hear claims from the Russians that we're doing this kind of research.”
However, he notes that anything can happen during war, and if he is captured by the Russian military, he could be tortured and forced to say literally any nonsense under duress, which could then be passed off as a “confession.”
“It’s very strange to be blamed for an almost absurd thing,” Silaghi said.
“The Russians must know it’s a lie.”