There is increasing fear of Russia bombing health labs in Ukraine and the possibility of dangerous pathogens contaminating the environment.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has 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.

Ukraine has public health laboratories researching how to mitigate the threats of dangerous diseases affecting both animals and humans. Its labs have received support from the United States, the European Union, and the WHO.

Biosecurity experts say Russia's movement of troops into Ukraine and bombardment of its cities have raised the risk of an escape of disease-causing pathogens, should any of those facilities be damaged.

WHO said that it has collaborated with Ukrainian public health labs for several years to promote security practices that help prevent "accidental or deliberate release of pathogens," according to Reuters.

"As part of this work, the WHO has strongly recommended to the Ministry of Health in Ukraine and other responsible bodies to destroy high-threat pathogens to prevent any potential spills," the WHO, a United Nations agency, said. 

Biological weapons labs in Ukraine

Russia reasserted a longstanding claim that Ukraine ran biological weapons laboratories with the support of the US Defense Department.

Ukraine and the United States have repeatedly denied the accusation, and government officials warn Russia may use it as a pretext to deploy its own chemical or biological weapons.

Izumi Nakamitsu, the UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, told the Security Council that the United Nations is "not aware" of any biological weapons programme in Ukraine, which joined an international ban on such arms, as did Russia and the United States along with 180 other countries. 

READ MORE: Russia's bioweapons claims gain ground in US

Science fiction

Russian claims included one theory that Ukrainian labs could have been used to develop materials capable of selectively targeting certain ethnic groups.

"It can be said with a high degree of probability that one of the objectives of the United States and their allies is the creation of bio-agents capable of selectively hitting various ethnic groups of the population," Igor Kirillov, the head of the Radiation, Chemical and Biological Protection Troops of the Russian Armed Forces, said, as reported on Thursday by the Russian Interfax news agency.

Experts have reacted with disdain to Russian claims that US-backed laboratories in Ukraine are likely producing ethnic-specific bio-agents, with one scientist describing them as "science fiction."

Prof Oliver Jones, Head of Biosciences and Food Technology at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, said, “This claim belongs purely in the realm of science fiction! Humans are just too genetically similar to find something that would affect only certain some people and not others.”

Jones explained, “Modern DNA testing can, at best, only tell you if your ancestry is likely to have come from specific regions such as Europe or Sub-Saharan Africa, not specific countries. You can’t tell which country someone is from, let alone their possible ethnicity from DNA, so there is no way to make any sort of agent, biological or otherwise, that could affect one ethnic group and not others. It is just not going to happen.” 

READ MORE: NATO chief says Russia may use 'chemical weapons'

Russia’s biological weapons

Prof Alastair Hay, Professor Emeritus of Environmental Toxicology at the University of Leeds, said, “Russia has been going on about the labs in Ukraine for some years now. I have seen no evidence to support Russia’s claims.”

“Developing the agents Russia alleges Ukraine is working on would be a clear violation of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC).”

“Russia also has form on biological weapons. In 1991 Boris Yeltsin admitted, after an initial denial, that the KGB (a government agency) had an illegal biological weapons programme. Russia had signed the BWC in 1972, promising to never use or develop biological weapons. But the KGB had a huge programme which was revealed by defectors.”

Hay added, “Chemical and biological weapon use allegations occur in many conflicts and are very difficult to verify. You need on-the-ground access, a robust investigatory protocol, good chain-of-custody procedures, and independent labs willing to do the analyses and stand by the results.”

No evidence

The US denied renewed Russian accusations that Washington was operating biowarfare labs in Ukraine, calling the claims "laughable" and suggesting Moscow may be laying the groundwork to use a chemical or biological weapon.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki, citing what she called Russia's "false claims," wrote on Twitter: "It’s Russia that has a long and well-documented track record of using chemical weapons, including in attempted assassinations and poisoning of Putin’s political enemies like Alexey Navalny."

Russia has denied carrying out an attack on Navalny.

The Pentagon's Biological Threat Reduction Programme has been working with the Ukrainian government to ensure the security of pathogens and toxins stored in the laboratories. In the midst of similar biowarfare accusations in 2020, the US embassy in Kiev issued a statement saying its involvement was to ensure "dangerous pathogens do not fall into the wrong hands."

A former US official, who is familiar with the cooperation between Kiev and Washington, said the United States had helped convert several Ukrainian laboratories involved in the former Soviet Union's biological weapons program into public health facilities.

Russia’s possible chemical or biological attack

Speaking to reporters last Friday, US President Joe Biden warned Russia that it would pay a "severe price" if its military used chemical weapons against Ukraine.

The British Defence Ministry tweeted that Russia could be planning to use chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine in response to a staged fake attack on Russian troops.

The ministry cited no evidence to support the assertion in what it called an intelligence update. US officials have made similar statements.

The Twitter post said: "Such an operation could take the form of a faked attack, a staged 'discovery' of agents or munitions or fabricated evidence of alleged Ukrainian planning to use such weapons." 

US bio-military plans

Russia’s accusations about the Ukrainian labs were echoed by China this week, with foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian accusing the US of using the facilities to "conduct bio-military plans."

Zhao Lijian stated, “Lately, US biological labs in Ukraine have indeed attracted much attention. According to reports, a large quantity of dangerous viruses is stored in these facilities. Russia has found during its military operations that the US uses these facilities to conduct bio-military plans.”

The Chinese statement also said that the US has 26 bio-labs and other related facilities in Ukraine, over which the US Department of Defense has absolute control. “All dangerous pathogens in Ukraine must be stored in these labs, and all research activities are led by the US side. Without US approval, no information shall be released to the public.”

China also called on relevant sides to ensure the safety of these labs, saying the US “should disclose specific information as soon as possible, including which viruses are stored and what research has been conducted.”

READ MORE: China seeks details of 'US-run biolabs' in Ukraine

Source: TRTWorld and agencies