By Stig S. Frøland
Parallel to the military operations in Ukraine, another war is being waged – a propaganda war of a scope we hardly have seen before. Among the many allegations set forth in this propaganda war are accusations from the Russian side that a number of laboratories in Ukraine with American support are working with the development of bioweapons, that is, highly pathogenic bacteria and viruses. These claims are adamantly rejected as absurd lies by the White House, Pentagon and State Department, contending that the allegations may harbinger the use of bioweapons by Russia. Nevertheless, Russia a few days ago brought this issue for the UN General Assembly, where a majority of the member states rejected the Russian claims, while certain countries (like China and India) demanded thorough investigations.
Are the Russian allegations wholly farfetched, or do they have some kind of factual basis? It is here necessary to look a little closer at the historical background to the development of bioweapons that has been going on from early in the 20th century. During the First World War, Germany initiated a programme for developing such weapons. The Geneva Protocol of 1925 that was signed by a number of countries prohibited the use of bioweapons, but neither research in this field nor the production of such weapons. In fact, several countries, among them signatories of the Geneva Protocol, started active research with this in mind. Most enthusiastic was Japan which in the years 1932-1945 established the most extensive programme for bioweapon development the world thus far had seen. The Japanese state utilised these weapons both in experiments on prisoners of war and civilians and in its ruthless warfare in China.
The US started developing bioweapons during the Second World War and after the war secured for itself Japanese research results and researchers in the field. The work was strongly intensified during the Korean War from 1950 to 1953 when the US was accused by North Korea and China for utilising bioweapons.
1972 saw the international Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) which prohibited the development of bioweapons and ordered the destruction of all stockpiles of such weapons. More than 180 states signed this convention, among them the US and the Soviet Union. It was hardly only ethical considerations that lay behind the convention, for the perception in military and political circles was now that bioweapons had too many disadvantages to be regarded as militarily useful. Yet we do know that several states signing the treaty have continued their work on developing this type of weapons. One of these was the Soviet Union that after 1972 covertly was active in this regard at a series of research and production institutions. During the Cold War 65 000 scientists and technicians were engaged in such work. A major weakness of the BWC is its lack of mechanisms for securing effective compliance of the terms of the treaty. The introduction of such mechanisms has thus far been met with resistance, for instance from the US.
After the breakdown of the Soviet Union the American department of defence established the so-called Cooperative Threat Reduction Program (CTRP) in 1991. The aim was to make sure that nuclear and biological weapons from the Soviet Union did not come astray, e.g., that they did not come into the hands of terrorist organisations. It was also a priority to transfer the thousands of jobless scientists who had worked with bioweapons to ordinary research activity. In several of the former Soviet republics, the programme probably had some success, while the authorities in the new Russia allegedly were not very cooperative. There are strong suspicions that Russia still is engaged in research and production of bioweapons.
The CTRP activity in Ukraine was strengthened by a treaty with the US in 2005. Through this treaty the US has supported and financed work in a number of Ukrainian biolaboratories. Robert Pope who now leads the CTRP categorically denies that these laboratories are doing research on bioweapons, even though some of them were involved in this in the Soviet era. He claims that they are doing legitimate, ‘peaceful’ research aimed at, for instance, detecting new microbial threats, such as swine flu. According to Pope, several of these laboratories undoubtedly contain potentially dangerous microbes in their refrigerators, some of them probably stemming from the work on bioweapons in the Soviet era. The CTRRP has formerly requested Ukrainian authorities to destroy these microbes, butt this work was not commenced when the war in Ukraine broke out.
Robert Popes statements may well be in accordance with the realities concerning the biolabs in Ukraine. But not everyone is convinced. As mentioned, the US has for a number of years carried out extensive research on bioweapons and is probably still active in this field. Scepticism to the official American version on the biolabs in Ukraine received new nourishment from statements by Victoria Nuland, undersecretary of state for political affairs, in the Senate recently. She expressed strong fears that biological material from the Ukrainian laboratories might fall into the hands of the Russians. What kind of dangerous material would this be? Of course, Russian microbiological laboratories have access to all kinds of microbes, highly pathogenic ones as well. Were Nuland’s statements simply awkwardly formulated – or were they in reality an unwilling admission that compromising material connected to bioweapons existed in Ukrainian biolabs?
At the moment we do not possess sufficient knowledge to assess the facts in the propaganda war over the biolaboratories in Ukraine. All the same the situation gives reason for concern. If laboratories with potentially dangerous microbes in the refrigerators get damaged by acts of war, power breaks may lead to the thawing of frozen microbe collections, and dangerous epidemics may be the result. In a chaotic war situation highly pathogenic microbes can also fall into the hands of extreme groups that might attempt to use them in the fight against the Russian invading forces.
This debate has at least had one positive result: The threat posed by bioweapons has once again been placed on the agenda. The last years’ rapid development in biotechnology has given rise to new possibilities for developing more sophisticated bioweapons that makes them militarily more interesting. Gene modification may make the microbes more dangerous, and technological advances may make their utilisation more effective than previously. In order to face the threat from bioweapons the international community should now insist on more openness in the activity of various states in this area. The Biological Weapons Convention should finally be supplemented with clear regulations that secure compliance with the terms of the treaty and effective control of suspect activities.
Stig S. Frøland is a Professor of Medicine and author of the book ‘Duel Without End: Mankind’s Battle with Microbes’ (Reaktion Books, 2022)