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How China Spread Kremlin’s False Biolab Claims

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, China February 4, 2022. (Aleksey Druzhinin/Sputnik/Kremlin via REUTERS)
Zhao Lijian

Zhao Lijian

Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman

“According to data released by the U.S., it has 26 bio-labs and other related facilities in Ukraine, over which the U.S. Department of Defense has absolute control… the biological military activities of the U.S. in Ukraine are merely the tip of the iceberg.”


On March 8, a reporter from Chinese state-owned Shenzhen TV sought comment from the Chinese Foreign Ministry on “U.S. biological labs in Ukraine,” adding that “the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine has reportedly removed information related to such labs in haste.”

The claim and report in question were from a single source – the Russian government, which is waging a war against Ukraine after invading the country on February 24.

Rescuers work next to a residential building damaged by shelling, as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, in Kyiv, March 14, 2022. (State Emergency Service of Ukraine/Reuters)
Rescuers work next to a residential building damaged by shelling, as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, in Kyiv, March 14, 2022. (State Emergency Service of Ukraine/Reuters)

Since then, Russian state media have ramped up dissemination of false claims that Russian troops found, and in some cases destroyed, Ukrainian bioweapon labs run by the United States.

As previously reported, the Kremlin has a long history of spreading bioweapons-related disinformation that has been repeatedly debunked.

Now, however, the Chinese government and its controlled media are parroting these false claims.

“According to data released by the U.S., it has 26 biolabs and other related facilities in Ukraine, over which the U.S. Department of Defense has absolute control,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said in response to the reporter.

“I would also like to stress that the biological military activities of the U.S. in Ukraine are merely the tip of the iceberg,” Zhao added. “Using such pretexts as cooperating to reduce biological safety risks and strengthening global public health, the U.S. has 336 biological labs in 30 countries under its control.”

Zhao’s claims and characterization are misleading or false.

None of the biolabs in Ukraine is run or controlled by the U.S. In addition, the biolabs in Ukraine are legitimate research labs and not secret; they do not conduct “biological military activities.”

Threat reduction

Ukraine joined the U.S. Department of Defense’s Biological Threat Reduction Program (BTRP) in 2005. The program is part of a U.S. government effort that began after the collapse of the Soviet Union to help secure its weapons of mass destruction, including biological, chemical, nuclear and radiological armaments.

“BTRP links the U.S. to over 30 foreign partners, enhancing national, regional, and global biosafety, biosecurity, and biosurveillance capabilities,” according to the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), a support agency within the Pentagon.

Foreign partners also include Russia-friendly former Soviet republics like Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan.

“We work with the Ukrainian Government to consolidate and secure dangerous pathogens and toxins that exist in Ukrainian government facilities. And we also fund peaceful research and vaccine development by Ukrainian scientists,” Joanna Wintrol, former head of U.S. Embassy Kyiv’s Defense Threat Reduction Office said in an August 2020 interview, which was posted on the embassy's webpage on Medium.

American support for these facilities is not a secret, and these U.S.-linked Ukrainian biolabs are not U.S. biolabs run by or under the “absolute control” of the Pentagon.

“Current executive agents of the Biological Threat Reduction Program in Ukraine are the Ministry of Health, the State Service of Ukraine for Food Safety and Consumer Protection, the National Academy of Agrarian Sciences, and the Ministry of Defense,” according to the BTRP page listed on the official website of the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine.

“In reality, this is a joint program between our two nations, based in legal agreements. And all of the participating laboratories and institutions are controlled and managed by the Ukrainian government. No U.S. scientists work in these labs,” Wintrol said, in answer to Russian disinformation at the time.

The arrangement was confirmed by the Ukrainian government.

The Kyiv Post reported in 2020 that the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) warned about a “planned information campaign” about biolabs in Ukraine.

“Recently, ‘fake news’ about the alleged activities of American military biological laboratories in Ukraine has been spread in the media and social networks … No foreign biological laboratories operate in Ukraine,” the SBU said on its Facebook page.

The SBU stated that “cooperation between Ukraine and the United States on countering biological terrorism takes place exclusively within the framework of Ukrainian legislation and in the interests of Ukraine,” the Kyiv Post reported.

“As part of this (BTRP) Agreement, a number of state laboratories located in Odesa, Kharkiv, Lviv, Kyiv, Vinnytsia, Kherson, Dnipropetrovsk regions were modernized (repair work was carried out, equipment was updated, supplies were purchased, etc.).”

“We emphasize that these laboratories are financed from the state budget, are subordinate to the Ministry of Health and the state service on food safety and consumer protection,” the SBU added.

Addressing persistent Russian disinformation on the network of U.S.-linked biolabs, the Pentagon released a video in January to explain their work.

All the labs participating in BTRP “are owned, operated and manned by host governments to meet local needs," it said.

No bioweapons

Russian and Chinese disinformation about the Ukrainian biolabs falsely and deliberately conflates biological research with biological weapons development. In fact, the purpose of BTRP is to eliminate biological weapons and prevent their development

The Arms Control Association (ACA), a nonprofit that advocates for global arms control policies, welcomed Ukraine’s participation in the BTRP.

“Cooperation under the new agreement will not be limited to physical security over pathogens. Funds also will be available for the peaceful employment of scientists whose skills and financial insecurity could render them potential targets for states or independent groups looking to acquire bioweapons capabilities,” the organization wrote in 2005.

“In addition, the agreement includes provisions for cooperation between U.S. and Ukrainian epidemiological laboratories in diagnosing disease outbreaks,” the ACA said.

“The Soviet Union maintained a massive bioweapons program, and part of the role of the US-linked labs is to take custody over left-over supplies, as is the case with a central reference laboratory in Kazakhstan,” according to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a global security and scientific nonprofit. “Disease surveillance and public health have since become the major focus of labs in the network.”

“The (BTRP) program has built laboratories for Ukrainian government agencies, helped with the country’s COVID-19 response, and supported U.S./Ukrainian scientific collaborations on avian, agricultural, and other pathogens,” wrote the Bulletin.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, the collective scientific national academy of the United States published a paper on the status of “high-containment laboratories in Ukraine” in 2012.

Two Ukrainian biosafety scientists from National Taras Shevchenko University of Kyiv wrote in the paper that Ukraine has no labs labeled as BSL-4, referring to the highest containment security that allows work on the most dangerous pathogens.

Foreign Policy reported last week that Ukraine has no BSL-4 lab, and only one BSL-3 lab, the next-highest level.

The White House, State Department, Pentagon and the U.S. intelligence community all have pushed back against Moscow's claims on U.S.-funded bioweapon research in Ukraine.

On March 9, White House press secretary Jen Psaki tweeted that Russia’s “false claims about alleged U.S. biological weapons labs and chemical weapons development in Ukraine” were “preposterous” and could be part of an attempt by Russia to lay the groundwork for its own use of such weapons of mass destruction against Ukraine.

The State Department called the Russian claim “total nonsense” and deemed it “false pretexts in an attempt to justify its own horrific actions in Ukraine.”

State Department spokesperson Ned Price said, “We have also seen PRC (People's Republic of China) officials echo these conspiracy theories.”

On China’s Twitter-like Weibo, a slew of hashtags referring to Zhao’s false accusation of U.S.-run biolabs in Ukraine attracted hundreds of millions of views.

Indeed, the Chinese have generally embraced Russian disinformation since the invasion.

Axios reported on March 8 that the Chinese government was “scrubbing the country’s media of sympathetic or accurate coverage of Ukraine and systematically amplifying pro-Putin talking points about Russia's invasion of Ukraine,” referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

On February 22, a censorship directive leaked from a Chinese state-run media outlet instructed employees to avoid posting “anything unfavorable to Russia or pro-Western” on their social media accounts. The directive appeared to be accidentally posted on the outlet's Weibo page.