Experts have reacted with disdain to Russian claims that US-backed laboratories in Ukraine are likely to produce ethnic-specific bio-agents, with one scientist describing them as “science fiction.”
Russian officials have made claims in recent days that the US is financing the development of chemical and biological weapons in Ukraine, including 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.
“The Americans have already managed to remove from the laboratories in Kyiv, Kharkiv and Odesa a large amount of documents, including databases, biomaterials and equipment to the Lviv Research Institute of Epidemiology and Hygiene and to the US consulate in Lviv. The probability of the transfer of part of the collection to Poland has not been ruled out,” Kirillov said.
US officials have dismissed claims that chemical or biological weapons are being developed in Ukraine.
Biological research facilities exist in Ukraine, as in most countries, but they don’t produce biological weapons, the State Department told Newsweek on Wednesday.
State Department spokesperson, Ned Price, said in a statement published the same said: “The Kremlin is intentionally spreading outright lies that the United States and Ukraine are conducting chemical and biological weapons activities in Ukraine.”
“This Russian disinformation is totally nonsense and not the first time Russia has invented such false claims against another country. Also, these claims have been debunked conclusively and repeatedly over many years,” the statement said.
Now scientific experts have reacted specifically to the Russian claims that such biological weapons could be used to target certain ethnic groups, explaining that this would certainly be impossible.
“This claim belongs purely in the realm of science fiction! Humans are just too genetically similar to find something that would affect only certain people and not others,” Oliver Jones, head of Biosciences and Food Technology at RMIT University in Melbourne Australia, said in a statement provided to the Science Media Centre, a UK body formed to promote more informed science reporting in the media.
“Modern DNA testing can, at best, only tell you if your ancestry is likely to have come from a specific regions such as Europe or Sub-Saharan Africa, not specific countries,” he said.
“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 groups and not others. It is just not going to happen.”
Richard Parsons, a senior lecturer in biochemical toxicology at King’s College London, meanwhile, said it is “highly unlikely” that a weapon targeting certain ethnic groups could be developed.
“We do have pharmaceutical agents which are more effective in certain ethnic groups due to very small differences in their shape, but these are highly-designed and complex molecules which take years to develop, and even members of the same ethnic group don’t all share these differences,” he said in a statement provided to the Science Media Centre.
“Chemical weapons are completely different, they target specific places in the proteins of the nerve cells which are common among everyone, otherwise these proteins would not work in them and they would not survive.
“The places they target are what we call the ‘active site,’ the part of the protein essential for function and thus everyone has them, regardless of ethnicity. This is why they are considered as indiscriminate weapons of mass destruction.”
Parsons said there is no reason to believe that bio-agents would be any different, but it is difficult to address the Russian claims because officials did not specify what they were talking about, or how they used that term.
“Is it an antibody which targets the protein and stops it from working? Is it some kind of organism? It is difficult to envisage how such an approach could be sufficiently selective enough to target an ethnic group in Europe in any case,” he said .
“Europeans, no matter where they are on the continent, share much more in common genetically than with other ethnic groups across the world,” he said. “Therefore, the differences between ethnic groups across both eastern and western Europe are not sufficient to target specific populations.”
Alastair Hay, a professor of environmental toxicology at the University of Leeds, in the UK, said he has seen “no evidence” to support Russia’s clams, while noting that the US has been supporting various labs in Ukraine.
“As I understand it, these labs are generally involved in disease surveillance,” he said in a statement. “It is unclear why the US needs to support this work and why, for example, it is not happening under WHO guidance. Funding, clearly, will be one issue. WHO will not have funds. But US support leaves it open to just the claims Russia is making.”
US Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told a Senate hearing on Thursday that while Washington has provided some assistance to these labs in the past, the funding has gone towards biosafety initiatives.
In the State Department statement, Price said: “The United States does not own or operate any chemical or biological laboratories in Ukraine, it is in full compliance with its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention and Biological Weapons Convention, and it does not develop or possess such weapons anywhere.”
Newsweek has contacted the US State Department and Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs for Comment.