What are the Ukraine ‘biolabs’ and why have they become a focus for Fox News and the US right?

Explainer: Andrew Buncombe sets out what we know about bio-labs – and the claims being made about them

Friday 18 March 2022 12:01 EDT
<p>Tucker Carlson</p>

Tucker Carlson

A fierce row is raging across the media and politics over US-funded “bio labs” in Ukraine.

The US government has admitted there are a number of such facilities in Ukraine funded by Washington that do research on deadly pathogens, albeit from a preventative perspective rather than to create a weapon.

Regardless, the US officials have expressed concern that the pathogens could fall into Russian hands and has urged that any harmful pathogens be destroyed. The World Heath Organisation has also made such a recommendation.

Russia has claimed without evidence the US is developing biological and chemical weapons in Ukraine and that it discovered efforts to clean up these programmes when it launched its so-called “special military operation”, an invasion that has led to thousands of deaths and indiscriminate targeting of civilian targets.

The US has denounced the claims, which have been repeated by China, as classic disinformation from Moscow.

Now, the issue has been seized on by some on the right, such as Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, who has been accused of intentionally implying the “bio labs” have a more sinister side to them. He has denied doing so.

And former Democratic congressman Tulsi Gabbard, who ran for the presidency in 2020, has been accused of “treason” by Mitt Romney, after she posted a two-minute video calling for a ceasefire in Ukraine to enable any harmful materials to be removed and accusing the Biden administration of a cover-up.

“Tulsi Gabbard is parroting false Russian propaganda. Her treasonous lies may well cost lives,” he tweeted.

So what do we know about these bio-labs and the claims being made about them?

Russia claims it found US bio-weapons programme in Ukraine

At the beginning of March, Russia’s defence and foreign ministries made the incendiary claim the US was funding bioweapons research in Ukraine. They said during “the course of the special military operation evidence of an emergency clean-up performed by the Kyiv government had been found aimed at eradicating traces of the military-biological programme”.

Maria Zakharova, a spokesperson for the Russian foreign ministry, called on Washington to come clean about what she termed “illegal activities in Ukraine”.

She said Russia had documents showing the Ukrainian health ministry had ordered the destruction of samples of plague, cholera, anthrax and other pathogens before February 24, when Russian forces moved into Ukraine.

“It can be concluded that components of biological weapons were being developed in Ukrainian biolabs located in close vicinity of our border,” she said. “The emergency destruction of dangerous pathogens on February 24 was a necessary step aimed at concealing the fact that Ukraine and the US had violated Article 1 of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention.”

What does the US say about this – and why does it think Russia is making assertions?

The US has denied the claims it has backed a bioweapons programme or is developing such weapons in Ukraine. It has also claimed Russia is making these assertions in order to give it cover should it decide to launch chemical or biological weapons attacks itself.

“Now that Russia has made these false claims, and China has seemingly endorsed this propaganda, we should all be on the lookout for Russia to possibly use chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine, or to create a false flag operation using them,” tweeted Jen Psaki, the White House Press Secretary. “It’s a clear pattern.”

Tucker Carlson claims Pentagon lying about Ukrainian bio labs

In a statement, Ned Price, spokesperson for the Department of State, accused Russia of “inventing false pretexts in an attempt to justify its own horrific actions in Ukraine” and said Washington was “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”.

John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesperson, called the Russian accusations “absurd”. “There’s nothing to it. It’s classic Russian propaganda,” he told reporters.

For many decades after World War II, the US had an offensive biological weapons programme. Today, it is a member of the Biological Weapons Convention, which was created in 1972 and has renounced biological warfare.

What does does Ukraine say about this?

Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky has said Russia will receive “severe sanctions” if chemical weapons are used in the war and denied Moscow’s accusation his nation is preparing to attack with chemical or biological weapons.

“I am the president of a rational country, a rational nation. And the father of two children. And no chemical or any other weapons of mass destruction were developed on my land,” he said in a video statement.

“The whole world knows that. You know that. And if Russia does something like that against us, it will get the most severe sanctions in response.”

ABC Reporter accuses Tucker Carlson of ‘plagiarising’ Putin

So what are those ‘bio-labs’ in Ukraine?

The US has acknowledged that Washington has funded a number of biological research facilities in Ukraine.

In congressional testimony last week, Victoria Nuland, the Under Secretary of State, was asked by senator Marco Rubio whether Ukraine “has chemical or biological weapons”.

“Ukraine has biological research facilities which we are now quite concerned that Russian forces may be seeking to gain control of,” she responded. “We are working with the Ukrainians on how they can prevent any of those research materials from falling into the hands of Russian forces should they approach.”

Mr Rubio pointed out that Russia was already claiming the Ukraine was seeking to make use of biological weapons.

“If there’s a biological or chemical weapon incident or or attack inside of Ukraine, is there any doubt in your mind that 100 per cent it would be the Russians that would be behind it?” he asked.

Ms Nuland responded: “There is no doubt in my mind, senator, and it is classic Russian technique to blame on the other guy what they’re planning to do themselves.”

The US state department said the facilities Ms Nuland was referring to were diagnostic and biodefence laboratories, which are different from biological weapons facilities.

The website of the US Embassy in Ukraine says: “The US Department of Defence’s Biological Threat Reduction Programme collaborates with partner countries to counter the threat of outbreaks (deliberate, accidental, or natural) of the world’s most dangerous infectious diseases.”

The Director of National Intelligence, Avril Haines, told the Senate Intelligence Committee that Ukraine “operates a little over a dozen” biolabs for biodefence and public health response. She said the US has, at least in the past, “provided assistance” to the labs “in the context of biosafety”.

“Which is something we have done with a variety of different countries,” she added.

She said the labs were not being used to develop weapons.

“We do not assess that Ukraine is pursuing either biological weapons or nuclear weapons. This influence campaign is consistent with long-standing Russian efforts to accuse the United States of sponsoring bioweapons. ... This is a classic move by the Russians.”

What does the UN say about this?

The United Nations’s High Representative of Disarmament Affairs Izumi Nakamitsu told a recent meeting of the security council the UN was “not aware” of any biological weapons programmes in Ukraine.

“Situations such as this demonstrate the need to strengthen the Biological Weapons Convention,” said Ms Nakamitsu.

How did this get into the right wing media?

Various right wing platforms and promoters of QAnon have been repeating the claims, in what critics have said is a boost to Russian disinformation efforts.

Alex Jones’ long debunked disinformation site InfoWars claimed without evidence that Russia had targeted US-run bioweapons labs “in many cities” in Ukraine shortly after Russia’s invasion began. It hosted one “expert” who claimed to have revealed bio labs in China and Ukraine run by the US.

How did it end up in mainstream media?

The person who has given most coverage to the “biolabs” story is Fox News’s top ranking anchor, Tucker Carlson, whose comments on the topic have often appeared to hint the US is covering up what is happening.

In a widely watched segment last week after Ms Nuland’s testimony, he concluded: “Does Ukraine have biological weapons? Ugh, Ukraine has biological research facilities. What? You mean secret bio labs like the secret bio labs that Ukraine definitely doesn’t have? Ukraine has those? Yes, it does.

“And not only does Ukraine have secret bio labs, Toria Nuland said, whatever they’re doing in those labs is so dangerous and so scary that she is, ‘quite concerned’ that the so-called research material inside those bio labs might fall into the hands of Russian forces.”

While fans of Carlson claim he is highlighting uncomfortable truths, critics say he is intentionally making false insinuations that play into Russia’s efforts at disinformation.

Shortly after Ms Nuland’s testimony, former congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard posted a two-minute video in which she stated what she said were “the undeniable facts”.

“There are 25 to 30 us funded bio labs in Ukraine. According to the US government, these bio labs are conducting research on dangerous pathogens,” she said. “Ukraine is in an active war zone with widespread bombing artillery and shelling and these facilities, even in the best of circumstances could easily be compromised and release these deadly pathogens.” She also said the US was funding labs around the world involved in “dangerous research”.

After her video was posted, Republican Senator Mitt Romney tweeted: “Tulsi Gabbard is parroting false Russian propaganda. Her treasonous lies may well cost lives.”

Ms Gabbbard has since “clarified” her remarks, claiming there might have been some “miscommunication and misunderstanding” about the terms bio labs and bio weapons labs.

“‘Biolabs’ are facilities which contain and experiment with dangerous pathogens, ostensibly for the purpose of serving the public good (i.e vaccines, etc.). ‘Biological weapons labs’ are facilities which exist for the purpose of turning pathogens into weapons so they can be used against an enemy (i.e. ‘bioweapons’),” she said on Twitter.

“The danger of pathogens being released from biolabs in Ukraine is very real, and we need to take action immediately to prevent an impending catastrophe.”

She added: “Mitt Romney and others say that I’m treasonous because I called for a ceasefire around the 25+ biolabs in Ukraine to prevent the breach of such facilities and escape of pathogens, and prevent more pandemics. Romney should resign.”

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