The ongoing Coronavirus pandemic has shone the spotlight on the research being conducted within the network of US partner biolabs in many countries of the world, and on the fact that it has not been playing an active role in curbing the spread of COVID-19. And yet, the key goal of USA's Biological Threat Reduction Program is to "counter and reduce the risk of biological threats and to prepare, respond to, and recover from them if they happen" in cooperation with partner countries.
In addition, the increased interest in the work conducted at these US partner labs abroad, financed by the US Department of Defense, stems from the fact that there has reportedly been an increasing number of incidents in connection with these facilities recently.
The Moscow-based Eurasia Daily (EADaily) news agency reported, citing the statement made on July 17 by Aleksandr Mazeikin, a Spokesperson of the People's Militia of LPR (the Luhansk People's Republic), that, in Ukraine's Kharkiv Oblast, five people had died after taking part in novel Coronavirus vaccine trials, which were being carried out under the guidance of scientists from US partner biolabs. According to the official, the deceased included four Ukrainian servicemen and one civilian. He also said that, based on unconfirmed reports, 110 residents of Ukraine had required medical assistance locally after being vaccinated with this novel candidate at medical centers in Kharkiv Oblast.
Russia's media outlet Sputnik, South Ossetia edition, reported on July 16 that citizen of Georgia Hvicha Mgebrishvili had been detained by border guards near the village of Adzisar in the Tskhinvali district of South Ossetia after he had crossed the border separating Georgia and the Republic illegally. He is suspected of trafficking bat cocoons to Georgia. According to the media, starting in 2012, employees of the Richard Lugar Center for Public Health Research (a facility in Georgia opened in cooperation with the US Department of Defense) have been systematically collecting material from bats. Apparently, the project on these mammals and Coronaviruses requires $2.9 billion in funding. In 2017, during the 9th Science Program Review of the US Defense Threat Reduction Agency's (DTRA) $2.1 billion Cooperative Biological Engagement Program, a joint project involving the United States, Georgia and Jordan was proposed. It would focus on "characterizing bat Coronavirus diversity and the risk of bat-borne zoonotic disease emergence".
According to Bulgaria's Centre for Global Studies (CMES), one private US company operating at the Lugar Center is CH2M Hill, which "has a contract with DTRA for $341.5 million under the Pentagon's biolaboratory program in Georgia, Uganda, Tanzania, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Southeast Asia."
In a report for CMES, Bulgarian investigative journalist and Middle East correspondent Dilyana Gaytandzhieva wrote that "Pentagon biolabs" had been established in 25 countries, including Ukraine and Georgia. Her article said that the US military produced "deadly viruses, bacteria and toxins", i.e. biological weapons. The work is being carried out in the aforementioned US bio-laboratories, funded by DTRA's Joint Biological Cooperation Program (CBEP) with an overall budget of $2.1 billion. Dilyana Gaytandzhieva also stated that the military program at the Richard Lugar Center for Public Health Research was "run by biologists from the US Military Medical Division in Georgia (USAMRU-G) and private contractors under a federal contract with DTRA". The article also stated that "the Biolaboratory with the Third Degree of Bioprotection" was "available only to American citizens with access to classified information", who had "diplomatic immunity granted to them under the Interstate Defense Cooperation Agreement with Georgia (2002)".
According to GovTribe, an online platform providing information about federal contracting, USAMRU-G's bioresearch program included "working on strain characterization of pathogens" in the region, "exploring other emerging and re-emerging diseases posing a potential risk to the Force in the Caucasus region (i.e. Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever (CCHF), anthrax, brucellosis, tularemia, etc.)" and "sample collection".
Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever (spread by the CCHF virus, primarily transmitted to people from ticks and livestock animals) was first identified by Soviet scientists in Crimea in 1944. The Bulgarian journalist claimed that after the Lugar Center had begun studying the CCHF virus, 34 people in Georgia "were diagnosed with the disease, three died and an epidemic was declared" in 2014.
Based on "a partially declassified US Army report from 1981", which included information on a "series of entomological warfare (EW) tests conducted by the US military in Savannah, Georgia in 1956", Dilyana Gaytandzhieva concluded that the Pentagon's aim was to assess the effectiveness of such operations, involving an attack by insects on a city, "in terms of cost and the number of victims". Nowadays, the USA is researching insects inhabiting other regions of the world that could carry pathogens at, for example, the Lugar Center in Georgia, a country that borders Russia. Since USA's National Security Strategy, unveiled in 2017, stated that China and Russia challenged "American power, influence, and interests", it is unlikely that the US Department of Defense would use its own and tax payer funds to finance research into treatment of infectious diseases prevalent in Russia and the near-by regions.
In 2014, according to Dilyana Gaytandzhieva, the Luger Center "was equipped with a special facility for breeding insects" and began three projects to study "sand flies of the species Phlebotomine" and to test the degree of their infectivity. These insects are known to carry pathogens that cause febrile arboviral infections.
The Bulgarian journalist also reported that the Lugar Center had been conducting research on the following mosquitoes since 2014:
- the species Aedes aegypti (the yellow fever mosquito), which originated in Africa and is known to spread "Zika, dengue, chikungunya, and other viruses";
- the Asian tiger mosquito (Aedes albopictus), which is also "an epidemiologically important vector for the transmission of many viral pathogens" that are dangerous for humans. The latter is "native to the tropical and subtropical areas of Southeast Asia".
In the former Soviet Union, the presence of such mosquitoes was not reported, but the situation has changed. In 2017, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) published maps showing distribution of such mosquito species throughout Europe, including Georgia. In her article Dilyana Gaytandzhieva claimed that Aedes albopictus and Aedes aegypti had been found in neighboring regions to Georgia, such as Krasnodar, Russia and northern Turkey, after the start of the DTRA program in Georgia in 2014.
Some of the research work was conducted by "contractors under the DTRA military program", i.e. private companies that did not report directly to US Congress. Three private American companies operated "in the Luger Center - CH2M Hill, Battelle and Metabiota". According to the article, "in addition to the Pentagon, they" ran "federal biological research projects for the CIA and other government agencies". For example, in a program code-named Clear Vision (1997-2000), the CIA, in cooperation with the Battelle Memorial Institute, "built and tested a model of a Soviet-designed germ bomb", which can be used to spread anthrax. Pentagon experts also "assembled a germ factory". According to US officials, "both the mock bomb and the factory were tested with simulants - benign substances with characteristics similar to the germs used in weapons".
Vladimir Odintsov, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine "New Eastern Outlook".