The Real ‘Especially Dangerous’ Materials in Those Ukrainian Biological-Research Labs | National Review

The Real ‘Especially Dangerous’ Materials in Those Ukrainian Biological-Research Labs | National Review

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When Florida senator Marco Rubio asked Victoria Nuland, the U.S. State Department’s undersecretary for political affairs, “Does Ukraine have chemical or biological weapons?” we all would have been better off if Nuland had accurately and clearly answered, “Ukraine has no biological weapons program, but the country has plenty of laboratories doing public health research that house pathogens that can be dangerous.”

Instead, Nuland answered, “Ukraine has biological-research facilities, which, in fact, we are now quite concerned Russian forces may be seeking to gain control of” — a statement that suspicious minds interpret as an inadvertent admission that Ukraine has a secret biological-weapons program.

As noted Wednesday, a “biological-research facility” is not the same as a biological-weapons-research facility, but a lot of people, inside and outside of the Russian government would like you to see the two terms as interchangeable. But what’s going on in Ukrainian biological-research facilities is not mysterious or shrouded in secrecy.

Ukraine’s port cities have always been centers for travel and trade, with lots of people and ships coming and going, and communicable viruses and disease-infected rats often arrived with them. In 1812, Odessa suffered one of the last catastrophic plague outbreaks in Europe, killing about one in every twelve people.

It is not surprising, then, that Ukraine’s national, state, and local authorities have always had programs studying communicable diseases and viruses and figuring out how to stop or slow their spread. In a thorough research paper on Ukrainian anti-plague programs from 2008, Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley, Alexander Melikishvili, and Raymond Zilinskas of the Monterey Institute of International Studies noted that, “Possibly the first plague epidemic control facility in the world was established in the city in 1886 . . . in 1965, it was renamed the I.I. Mechnikov Odessa Scientific and Research Institute of Viral Diseases and Epidemiology.”

In fact, the I. I. Mechnikov Anti-Plague Research Institute laboratory “was reconstructed and technically updated up to the BSL-3 level through a cooperative agreement between the U.S. of Defense and the Ministry of Health of Ukraine that started in 2005,” and as of 2011, was one of a handful of biosafety-level-three facilities in the country. Ukraine does not have any biosafety-level-four facilities.

The Soviets created additional research facilities, including the Odessa Anti-Plague Station:

Therefore the most important, and dangerous, task for the Odessa AP Station throughout the Soviet era was to catch rats and mice on ships and around the harbor and culture them and their ectoparasites for pathogens. In addition to plague bacteria, over the years the station has 75 recovered bacteria from rodents that cause cholera, tularemia, leptospirosis, and brucellosis. Beyond Odessa, the station was responsible for monitoring the situation related to plague, cholera, anthrax, tularemia, and leptospirosis in the western and northwestern parts of the USSR, although its activities were mainly undertaken in Ukraine and Moldova.

These are good examples of biological research facilities that are full of dangerous and potentially contagious pathogens that are not biological-weapons research or development facilities. (The translation of one of the Mechnikov Institute’s department names makes its work abundantly clear: “Department of Especially Dangerous Bacteria and Virus Research.” That department had six laboratories, five of which had the phrase “especially dangerous” in their names.)

Crimea had its own “anti-plague station” founded in 1971 in response to cholera pandemic that originated from Alexandria, Egypt, but that came to affect southern Ukraine. The Russian government has controlled that institution since Russian forces annexed Crimea in 2014.

The Ukrainian State Emergency Service is a civil-defense agency that conducts epidemiological surveillance and investigations of infectious disease outbreaks, monitors food and water supplies, and identifies environmental hazards. “This agency runs 30 laboratories at regional SES centers that perform initial investigations of disease outbreaks.” Ukraine has naturally occurring anthrax, listeriosis, tularemia, brucellosis, cholera, rabies, and rickettsiosis. In 2017, the country suffered a noticeably severe tuberculosis outbreak.

In addition, Ukraine has more than 31 universities with biological laboratories; it is likely that all of them have at least a few samples of potentially dangerous and contagious pathogens.

In March 4, Alla Mironenko, a virologist and head of the Influenza Laboratory at the Ministry of Health in Kyiv, told the publication The Scientist that her “biggest concern for the lab is that a power outage could compromise the building’s deep freezers that store reagents, samples — careers’ worth of work. ‘If the power goes out, that will ruin everything.’”

As for the notion that there’s something sinister about U.S. funding or cooperation for these laboratories, in 2005, the U.S. government realized it was not a good idea to have all kinds of viruses and bacteria sitting on refrigerated shelves of Ukrainian research facilities with minimal security. The U.S. and Ukraine agreed to expand the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program to fund security improvements for pathogens stored at biological research and health facilities in Ukraine — specifically mentioning the Scientific Research Institute of Epidemiology and Hygiene in Lviv, the Ukrainian Scientific Research Anti-Plague Institute in Odessa, and the Central Sanitary Epidemiological Station in Kyiv. The U.S. provided $15 million.

It is not the least bit surprising that the U.S. is worried about those labs, nor that the World Health Organization advised Ukraine to destroy high-threat pathogens housed in the country’s public-health laboratories to prevent “any potential spills” that would spread disease among the population. Yes, the Russians could attempt to use the dangerous pathogens in some sort of “false flag” terrorist attack. But it’s even more likely that these Russian troops — poorly trained, poorly briefed, hungry, and dumb enough to fire shells at a nuclear plant — could well accidentally cause an outbreak of a contagious disease.

All of this information is on the Internet and in English. People can sit around and speculate that Nuland’s comment accidentally revealed a joint U.S.-Ukrainian secret biological-weapons program, echoing the nonsensical claims of a Russian government that also contends it did not attack Ukraine and that the Ukrainian army is shelling its own cities to make Russia look bad.

Or people can look at what is already known and disclosed about these labs and draw conclusions accordingly.

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About the Author

Tony Beasley
Tony Beasley writes for the Local News, US and the World Section of ANH.