Lab Leaks Are a Small But Real Risk in Ukraine. Russian Disinformation Is The True Threat
Two years into a global pandemic whose initial cause remains a subject of debate, Reuters, on March 11, published an especially jarring story: the World Health Organization, according to the news agency, had advised Ukraine to eliminate any high-threat pathogens it had in its biolabs, to reduce (and ideally eliminate) the chances that, were the Russian army to attack those facilities, pathogens would leak out and spread disease to the population.
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. Even in peacetime, accidents at laboratories around the world that cause people to get sick are more common than one would hope; just this December, a lab worker in Taiwan was diagnosed with the Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2, which was traced to a bite from an infected lab mouse. 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. Such labs, while not the highest security risk, are still designed to contain pathogens that can be transmitted through the air and could potentially cause lethal infections. Wartime conditions, though, could compromise those security measures. And if someone were to be infected, accidentally or otherwise, war time conditions might be harder to treat people who have been exposed and contain the infection, such as compromising access to medications, says Hayley Severance, deputy vice president of global biological policy and programs at the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a security nonprofit that aims to reduce global nuclear and biological threats.
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. And in more-secure BSL 3 labs, pathogens face additional obstacles that prevent them from escaping; according to World Health Organization standards, such labs are equipped with various features to keep pathogens secure, including self-closing, interlocked doors; sealed windows, and decontamination equipment such as incinerators. Lentzos says they have layered protections, such that some measures will remain in place if others fail.
Additionally, it’s unlikely that the Russian government would steal a pathogen from a lab to infect other people, says Severance. First of all, because Russia has similar ecosystems to Ukraine, its own labs likely will already have any pathogen that could be found in a Ukrainian lab. Indeed, Russia is one of only a handful of countries that has BSL 4 labs. 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. Additionally, actually taking a disease out of a test tube (accidentally or otherwise) and spreading it to others is harder than you might think, unless you happen to have a biologist on hand. “What the heck will you do with it? Will you infect yourself and then try to infect others? Will you, you know, throw it at people? 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.
Indeed, Russia has already begun to spread false information about biological weapons in Ukraine. 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 says Ukraine has been transparent about the work at its facilities, and has participated in international efforts like the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, which the U.S. created to assist former Soviet states in dismantling unconventional weapons programs, and collaborates regularly with scientists from other countries.
Such propaganda suggests that, were Russia to take over Ukrainian bioresearch labs, it could give Moscow more fuel for further disinformation, which the Putin regime could use in an attempt to justify the war to Russian citizens; to undermine international institutions, such as the United Nations, that investigate claims of biological weapons programs; and generally generate more distrust and uncertainty.
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. Going forward, Severance argues that the world should do more to make it harder to make false claims 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.”