Russia's conspiracy theory endangers the the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, a longstanding international effort that actually prevents bioweapons labs from operating.
Since the invasion of Ukraine began a month ago, representatives of Russia have unleashed an avalanche of disinformation to justify this aggression, claiming they plan to liberate breakaway regions, restore Russia’s pre-Soviet boundaries, or rescue Ukrainians from a “drug-addled” government. Some assertions are comically outlandish—“denazifying” a country led by a Jewish president, for instance—but one strand of disinfo has sent a chill though biosecurity specialists and Cold War veterans. That is the claim that Ukraine manufactures biological weapons in laboratories funded by the United States.
This conspiracy theory worries experts because it is false, and because it could provide cover for Russia deploying biological weapons of its own. But its least speculative and most sinister threat is that it endangers the the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, a long-standing international effort that actually prevents bioweapons labs from operating—while allowing countries to develop the capacity to respond to other threats, from destructive livestock and crop pathogens to deadly diseases such as Ebola and Covid.
“These labs are being misrepresented,” says Hayley Severance emphatically. Severance, now deputy vice president for global biological policy at the nonpartisan think tank NTI, was formerly a Department of Defense adviser working on the threat-reduction program, which for decades has supported these research labs in Ukraine. “There is no nefarious biological weapon development activity, ongoing in Ukraine, supported by the US,” she adds. “That is a false narrative that has been part of the Russian playbook for decades.”
The threat-reduction effort dates back to the eve of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. In fact, Russia was its first beneficiary: The program’s initial aim, which the soon-to-be-dissolved USSR assented to, was arms control. The program deployed billions in US funding to destroy or safely store the enormous quantities of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons the Soviet Union had amassed.
The Soviet bioweapons program never operated in Ukraine, though. The repurposed labs there, now supported by the threat-reduction program, are the remnants of a series of “anti-plague” laboratories along the former Soviet Union’s borders. They were intended to be a line of defense against naturally occurring pathogens such as brucellosis and anthrax, as well as bubonic plague.
Over years, the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program expanded to modernizing and making safe a range of laboratories and stockpiles of materials in locations that once had been Russian states and later became independent republics, such as Kazakhstan. In the program’s third decade it expanded again, at the same time that the US government recruited other nations to join a 2014 international compact called the Global Health Security Agenda. In this current iteration, the threat-reduction program supports labs in areas well outside the former Soviet boundaries, such as Africa and Asia—places that need help funding and staffing complex civilian research facilities.
Worth noting: Though Russia was once the threat-reduction program’s chief client and partner, it withdrew from the agreement in 2012.
The threat-reduction program “evolved from dismantlement to capacity-building, especially with the research institutes that were involved in the Soviet Union's biological weapons program, redirecting them toward developing vaccines and therapeutics and improving infectious disease surveillance,” says Andrew Weber, senior fellow at the nonpartisan Council on Strategic Risks and formerly the assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical, and biological defense programs.
Weber helped negotiate Ukraine’s entry into the program in 2005. (The original agreement is still on the Department of State’s website.) Since then, the US Department of Defense has invested about $200 million there, supporting work at 46 locations: university and government laboratories studying human and animal health, and health care labs that perform diagnostic assays. Though Ukrainian facilities never produced biological weapons, they contained and still work on naturally occurring pathogens, using the kind of biosecure lab infrastructure that allows handling such organisms safely. Either could be turned to nefarious purposes if the labs fell into enemy hands.
Supporting those labs represents “a shift in our approach from dealing just with hardcore weapons facilities and scientists,” Weber says, “to understanding that to counter biological weapons and infectious disease threats, we need to prevent terrorists from exploiting pathogens in laboratories that were working on them for public health and animal health reasons.”
Ukraine needed this basic biology research. Before the invasion, the country was an agricultural powerhouse. Pathogens that could threaten its products were national priorities for research: fungal wheat rust, for instance, or African swine fever. Plus, Ukraine is still bedeviled by infectious diseases that persist in emerging economies, such as tuberculosis, measles, and HIV, and is at risk of rare diseases endemic to Eurasia, such as Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever.
In fact, Ukraine was required to maintain this research. Like almost every other nation in the world, it signed the International Health Regulations, the treaty overseen by the World Health Organization that commits states to “detect, assess, notify, and report” diseases arising within their own borders so the rest of the world can be alerted in time. (The current version of the treaty was rewritten after the SARS pandemic in 2003, which spread as far as it did because China delayed notifying other countries of the disease’s emergence.)
The Cooperative Threat Reduction Program helped finance those required labs when countries were not able to afford them on their own, not only in Ukraine but in places like Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Biosecurity experts agree the support made a difference to squelching epidemics afterward. One example: A program-supported laboratory in Sierra Leone normally works to detect and control Lassa fever, a hemorrhagic disease transmitted by rats that kills about 1 in 100 people who contract it. But when the Ebola epidemic whipped through West Africa in 2014—eventually it killed more than 11,000 people—the Sierra Leone lab pivoted to help. “They immediately switched everything over and then pushed out diagnostic materials to other labs in the region,” says Gigi Kwik Gronvall, a biosecurity expert and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
Even before the invasion, the Russian government was working to cast the labs and their funding in a false light. During the Beijing Olympics in February, Russian president Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping released a joint statement that, among a long list of allegations, condemned “domestic and foreign bioweapons activities by the United States and its allies [that] raise serious concerns and questions for the international community.” A week after the invasion began, the Russian government claimed to have uncovered evidence that the US and Ukraine were working on biological weapons in the country.
When the invasion launched, the WHO advised the funded labs in Ukraine to destroy their research materials, out of concern that pathogens might be released either accidentally during bombardment or deliberately by invading forces. This isn’t unprecedented; highly biosecure university labs in the US, in Louisiana and Texas, took the same kind of precautions when hurricanes Katrina and Ike bore down on them in 2005 and 2008.
But what looked to experts like a responsible action gave the disinformation effort fresh fodder. On March 7, Russian state media alleged the sample destruction proved criminal intent—claims that were amplified within the US by programs on Fox News. “There's this blurring that has happened over the last couple of years, that people equate any biological research with nefarious activity,” Gronvall says. “That has been a deliberate and cynical tactic here in the US, and it's what Russia's tapping into.”
As the invasion grinds on, the biosecurity experts who worked on the threat-reduction program are watching with trepidation. Their most immediate concern is that the amount of disinformation the Russian government has pumped out could provide Russia with a rationale for launching a biological attack, and a basis for claiming Ukraine was the source. “It would not be uncharacteristic of Russia to accuse another country of doing something that they intend to do themselves, setting it up as a defensive action instead of the aggressive and abhorrent action that it would be,” Severance says. “That’s what I am most worried about. If it happens, that would be a serious degradation of international norms against biological weapons development.”
The intelligence community has known for years that the Russian government violates these norms. Russia is a signatory—like Ukraine and the US—to the International Biological Weapons Convention, a treaty overseen by the United Nations that forbids production, stockpiling, and use of weapons based on either natural or designed pathogens. But unlike other international organizations supported by treaties—such as the International Atomic Energy Agency, which had a budget in 2020 of almost $700 million, or the Chemical Weapons Convention, policed by the 500-employee Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons—the bioweapons pact has no enforcement arm and no ability to conduct inspections. “There needs to be a more productive discussion on how we achieve effective, transparent verification,” says Severance.
Over the past two years, many of the labs supported by the threat-reduction program ended up being their countries’ frontline defenses against Covid. That work, and the wartime attention to the program now, might end up producing a positive outcome—by making the case that disease-monitoring labs are good for national security, not merely assets to be protected from misuse.
Keeping the program going, though, will require steady investment. The US is just beginning the climb back from years of disinvestment in public and global health, not only in the budgets of the Department of Health and Human Services but in the State Department and Department of Defense as well. The newest budget cycle, launched Monday with President Biden’s FY2023 budget request, may reverse that trend: It asks for $88.2 billion “to prepare for future biological threats in support of objectives within US national and global biodefense and pandemic preparedness strategies and plans.”
Putting money into civil society and science, and not only into tanks and planes, is an investment in soft power—one that can have hard results. “We believe that we can take bioweapons off the table,” Weber says. “If we sustain our investments in medical countermeasures, therapeutics, vaccines, quick manufacturing delivery, then our adversaries will decide that using biological weapons won't be effective, and therefore that they are not worth it as a weapon of mass destruction.”
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