TReuters published an unusual story on March 11th, a year after a pandemic that left millions of people unable to breathe. The news agency reported that the World Health Organization had advised Ukraine not to allow any highly-threat pathogens to be found in its biolabs. This was to decrease (or ideally eliminate) the possibility of pathogens spreading to other parts, if the Russian army attacked those facilities.
The risk of such a disaster—either through some terrible accident, or by nefarious design—is real, but thankfully, not quite as big of a threat as it might seem. For one thing, Ukraine does not have a single Biosafety Level (BSL) 4 within its borders—these are the highest-security labs, which are authorized to store the most dangerous pathogens (like the world’s last remaining samples of smallpox). Additionally, many pathogens stored in lower BSL labs are vulnerable to heat and sunlight, meaning they are unlikely to spread widely were they to escape those facilities—which have safeguards of their own to prevent that from happening.
The risk that the chaos of the war will unleash pathogens from Ukrainian labs is “extremely unlikely. But, yes, in theory, it’s a possibility,” says Filippa Lentzos, the co-director of the Centre for Science and Security Studies at King’s College London. In peacetime, it is more common for people to become sick from accidents in laboratories all over the world than we would like. A Taiwanese laboratory worker contracted the Delta strain of SARS/CoV-2 after he was infected by a mouse infected with SARS. Lab leaks have threatened even more dire consequences; as Gregory Lewis, the acting head of the Biosecurity Research Group at Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute, points out, the last known death from smallpox, in 1978, was caused by a lab leak in the United Kingdom. “Globally, we are not good enough. We all need to improve,” says Lewis.
In 2020, the head of the Ihor Kuzin, then Ukraine’s chief state sanitary doctor, told the Ukrainian television network TSN the country only had two Biosafety Level 3 laboratories. These labs may not pose the greatest security risk but they are intended to protect against pathogens which can transmit through airways and cause deadly infections. However, these security measures could be compromised by wartime conditions. It is possible to infect someone accidentally, or intentionally, but it could be more difficult to treat those who are exposed.
However, Severance and Lentzos explain that there are a number of factors that bring down the risk for Ukraine’s bioresearch infrastructure. For instance, in lower-security labs—the majority of labs in Ukraine—scientists typically deactivate pathogens to examine them, Severance says. In more secure BSL 3 labs pathogens may face further obstacles to prevent them from fleeing; these laboratories are designed according to World Health Organization standards and include self-closing interlocked doors, sealed windows, decontamination equipment, incinerators, and sealed windows. Lentzos states that they use layered protections so that some of the measures can be retained even if other ones fail.
Additionally, it’s unlikely that the Russian government would steal a pathogen from a lab to infect other people, says Severance. First, Russia is similar to Ukraine in terms of its ecosystems, so it’s unlikely that Russia would steal a pathogen from a lab. Russia is the only country that has BSL 4 laboratory. Secondly, biological attacks are uncommon, because pathogens tend to be “difficult to spread” and “very unpredictable,” says Lentzos. Compared to conventional weapons, pathogens are much harder to control—which means it’s hard to prevent them from harming one’s own troops. “It’s easier to make something very nasty in a test tube, but mercifully somewhat harder to actually use it in combat,” says Lewis.
Further, it also isn’t very likely that locals will stumble into labs looking for medical supplies; as Lentzos points out, such labs don’t store medications, and it can be hard to mistake a research lab filled with flasks, test tubes and mysterious liquid solutions for a pharmacy. Even if you are a trained biologist, it is difficult to take the disease and then spread it around. “What the heck will you do with it? You will infect your self and infect other people. You will, you know throw it at others? Will you defrost it?” says Lentzos.
All that said, Russia can still turn biolabs into a tool to hurt the Ukrainian public—by turning the possibility that pathogens could be let loose into a weapon of disinformation and public confusion.
Russia already started spreading fake information about Ukraine’s biological weapons. Earlier this month, for example, the Russian defense ministry claimed that Ukraine was operating a covert bioweapons program allegedly controlled by the U.S. military; soon after, experts—including a number of Russian scientists—responded, saying there isn’t any evidence to support those allegations. Severance states that Ukraine has made its activities transparent and participated in international programs like the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program. The program, created by the U.S. in order to help former Soviet nations dismantle unconventional weapon programmes, also works regularly with scientists of other countries.
This propagandism suggests that Russia would take over the Ukrainian bioresearch laboratory, giving Moscow additional fuel for disinformation. Russia can use it to justify the war against Russian citizens, to weaken international institutions like the United Nations to investigate claims of biological weapon programs, and to create more uncertainty and distrust.
Further, by spreading rumors about biological weapons, and thus generating a false narrative to justify Russia’s own use of such tools of destruction, Russian propaganda could undermine the longstanding international consensus that biological weapons are inhumane and unacceptable. Severance says that there should be more efforts to stop false statements about biological weapons programs. While Ukraine is a party to the Biological Weapons Convention, the disarmament treaty doesn’t have a verification protocol—which, in theory, would have been able to help prove that Russia’s accusations are baseless. As it stands, Severance says Russian propaganda is “eroding the hard fought and won norms that have been established against biological weapon uses. It just really creates a dangerous environment.”
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