Deputy Vice President, Global Biological Policy and Programs
The Russian invasion of Ukraine already has exacted a terrible toll with hundreds of civilians confirmed dead. The number could climb precipitously if biological or chemical weapons were introduced to the warzone, as the U.S. and UK governments have warned. Russian propaganda networks have been laying the groundwork to justify such an attack for years with false claims that Ukrainian biological research facilities used to advance animal and public health are secretly being used to build bioweapons. Alarmingly, this propaganda has recently been parroted by some U.S. news media outlets, further inflaming tensions and mainstreaming lies.
This is dangerous and must stop.
Such commentary sows division and confusion. It also creates an environment where Russia could be seen as justified in future, illicit use of biological weapons, even by some in the United States who might view a biological attack as defensive rather than aggressive, desperate, and immoral.
The “biological research facility” term encompasses any laboratory that does research on biological material – a high school biology classroom would fit the definition – and it is important to recognize and clearly communicate this distinction between such facilities and illicit bioweapons factories. There’s no question that the technologies and practices in laboratories that produce scientific breakthroughs to help detect and prepare for pandemics can pose a dual-use risk, meaning that they have the potential for misuse or abuse with potentially catastrophic effect. To mitigate this risk, it’s crucial that scientists are effectively trained; have the tools, practices, and oversight mechanisms to mitigate dual-use risk; and are bound by strong codes of ethics.
Dating back to the 1990s, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the United States and its partners recognized that the massive Soviet bioweapons development apparatus needed to be dismantled and redirected. The concern was that newly unemployed highly trained scientists, under the right pressures and for the right price, could share their expertise to terrorist groups or rogue states. The U.S. government – through the Department of Defense’s Biological Threat Reduction Program and similar offices at the State Department – worked for decades to ensure a safe transition and effectively mitigate these potential threats.
Today, the facilities in question are Ukrainian-owned and operated laboratories that advance public health, diagnosing and researching diseases to prevent and mitigate the impacts of naturally occurring disease outbreaks. The U.S. collaborates with Ukrainian scientists and government officials to ensure these facilities are safely and securely operated by building laboratory staff capacity, establishing robust best practices, and instilling strong commitments to safety and security.
Such global threat reduction efforts are not unique to Ukraine. Similar programs exist in Kazakhstan, Georgia, Uzbekistan, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, as well as across Africa, Southeast Asia, and beyond. In each case, the collaborative efforts seek to detect unusual disease occurrences, prevent the acquisition and use of dangerous pathogens and toxins in an intentional attack, and engage scientists in ethical research.
These collaborations improve global safety and security and help prevent accidental release or malicious use. Investments and support in this space have been incredibly impactful and have had bipartisan support in the United States across decades. Attacks on this work – from Russian State media or otherwise – only imperil our collective safety and play into Russian hands.
First, citizens, politicians, and the news media must stop parroting harmful and false propaganda related to bioweapon development, particularly by actors who seek to use it for their own political and financial gains. All journalists and news organizations have a responsibility and obligation to truthfully report events, to work diligently to understand context and history around false claims, and to emphasize the damage done when international norms around biological weapons use deteriorate. Governments also must reaffirm their commitment to a norms-based order built on transparency and an agreement to uphold the prohibition on the “development, stockpile, production, or transfer of biological agents and toxins…that have no justification for protective or peaceful use”.
Second, the international community must establish an effective verification mechanism for the Biological and Toxins Weapons Convention. This mechanism also must be grounded in transparency and seek to prevent the sinister spread of suspicion and accusations. The United States has recently opened the door “to strengthen implementation of the Convention, increase transparency, and enhance assurance of compliance,” but this must be followed through with action. Additionally, Chinese and Russian attempts to obfuscate history and complexity must be soundly rejected. All parties must work toward common aims that make us all safer.
Third, leaders in the field and in government must encourage transparency and scientific collaboration, including on biosecurity and biosafety. NTI | bio works to build global cooperation in this area, advancing collective efforts through the Global Biosecurity Dialogue, strengthening biosecurity norms, and developing innovative tools to uphold them through the International Biosecurity and Biosafety Initiative for Science and other projects aimed at preventing globally catastrophic biological risks.
And finally, targeted disinformation must not be allowed to stop us from working to make the world safer and more secure from these sorts of threats. The United States must continue bipartisan support for biological threat-reduction programs and increase investments in light of the events of the past two weeks. Global partners – governments and civil society – must come together to find solutions and deescalate these tensions, particularly by shutting down disinformation and working to prevent further loss of life.
Norms matter. Words matter. The truth matters. Ukraine and the world will be better off if we remember this and work together to deescalate and ensure biological weapons are never developed or used.
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Aparupa Sengupta, senior program officer for NTI’s Global Biological Policy and Programs team (NTI | bio), sat down with NTI’s Mary Fulham for the latest in Atomic Pulse’s “Get to Know NTI” series.
Examples from around the world of the Global Health Security Index in-use.
In an NTI seminar, Dr. Gregory Koblentz explored how Russia seeds the ground with disinformation to create doubt around Ukrainian laboratories and outlined solutions for how the world can prepare for and prevent this sort of dangerous diversion in the future.