Like CheckNews (the fact-checking service of our colleagues at Liberation, editor’s note) detailed it in a previous article, Ukrainian and Georgian laboratories – partners of an American program to fight against biological risks – have been presented by Russia, for many years, as biological weapons production sites. And this, while several of these sites have been opened to Russian inspection, or have established partnerships with Russian researchers. Shortly after the start of the invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin claimed that documents validating this thesis had been discovered in these famous laboratories.
On March 10, Igor Kirillov, the head of the Russian force for protection against radiation, chemical and biological products, thus put forward the existence of a project “whose objective was to research the potential for the spread of particularly dangerous infections via migratory birds, in particular the highly pathogenic influenza H5N1, whose lethality for humans can reach 50%, as well as Newcastle disease”. He also claimed to have evidence “of the leading role of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) of the US Department of Defense in funding and conducting military biological research in Ukraine”.
Allegations made public without proof
On March 12, Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov, in turn, said that US-funded Ukrainian researchers “had investigated the possibility of pathogens being carried by wild birds migrating between Russia and Ukraine, as well as other neighboring countries.” In these statements, Russian officials mention projects dubbed “P444” and “UP-4”, and the fact that the documents incriminating the United States would be made public shortly.
The announcement was picked up in various Russian media. “The United States was working on the creation of a powerful biological weapon. The purpose of the project was to spread particularly dangerous infections through migratory birds”could we read as early as March 10 in the Pravda.
However, the evidence for these allegations has still not been made public. The reason could be quite prosaic: the projects cited by the Russian authorities are already known to the scientific community, since they were the subject of publications in specialized journals in 2016 or 2018. This work, which relates to sequencing viruses carried by migratory birds, explicitly mention the financial support of the DTRA, the biological threat reduction program of the United States Department of Defense.
Several of these publications also specify in black and white that this research is linked to the “P444” program. Affiliation of Ukrainian researchers to DTRA’s UP-4 project is mentioned in various online documents, which detail the full name of the project: “Risk assessment of some particularly dangerous pathogens potentially carried by migratory birds over Ukraine”. The project is also mentioned on the website of the US Embassy in Ukraine.
No evidence to suggest intentional dispersal
In fact, the DTRA, contacted by CheckNewsconfirms the existence of this work and their participation in the financing. “The UP-4 project, which involved four entities from the Ukrainian Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Agriculture, involved training Ukrainian personnel in the safe and humane collection of samples from wild birds, to identify pathogens that could harm Ukrainian poultry flocks, or spread to human populations,” details the agency.
“Researchers analyzed the spread of zoonoses from infected wild birds, and determined the impact on domestic poultry populations. The project quantified the associated risks through the use of mapping techniques, and enabled the Ukraine to direct protective resources to prevent Newcastle disease viruses and avian influenza, thereby reducing the risk of illness in Ukraine”, add the DTRA. And to insist on the fact that all of this research “were conducted openly, presented publicly, and ultimately resulted in the publication of the results online in scientific journals.”
There is therefore, at this time, no element suggesting that the projects to study migratory fauna called into question by the Russian authorities are associated with a project for the deliberate dispersal of pathogens.
This fear of the use of migratory birds for military purposes, on the other hand, echoes authentic research carried out by the Smithonian Institute in the mid-1960s. In the 1980s, the washington post had documented that research on bird migration in the Pacific Islands had been funded by the military, with a dual purpose: to identify sites where biological experiments could be conducted without the risk of avian pathogen spread and, conversely, identify migration routes conducive to attacks in enemy territory. The program was definitively stopped in June 1970.