At a recent international meeting in Geneva, representatives of Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia expressed concern that the “Lugar Laboratory” in Tbilisi was contributing to increased outbreaks of dangerous diseases in South Ossetia.
“The South Ossetian side again expressed concern regarding outbreaks of non-typical pandemic diseases of humans and animals in Georgia, as well as the so called ‘Lugar Laboratory’ located on the territory of Georgia, and the increased rate of outbreaks of dangerous pandemics in South Ossetia,” the Tskhinvali authorities said a statement.
This is the latest in a series of claims, from South Ossetian authorities as well as Russian officials, that there is a biological weapons threat from Georgia. The Kremlin has repeatedly accused Georgia and the United States of using the “Lugar Laboratory” as a secret military facility that is developing biological weapons against Russia’s national interests. The Russian officials who have made these claims include Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and Gennady Onishchenko, former Chief Sanitary Inspector of Russia.
U.S. and Georgian government officials, including the chief scientist at the laboratory, told Polygraph.info that these accusations are false. Contrary to the South Ossetian and Russian claims, they stressed that the mission of the Lugar Center is the “protection and improvement of the health of Georgia’s population through scientific, evidence-based prevention of diseases, and through the preparation for, and timely response to, threats to public health.” In addition, they noted that the Center is a World Health Organization partner, is open to qualified scientists from around the world, and is strictly monitored according to U.S. and international health standards.
The director general of Georgia’s National Center for Disease Control and Public Health, Amiran Gamkrelidze, called the claim about biological weapons and spreading diseases a “sheer lie.” In an email response to Polygraph.info, he said that these “claims carry a political character.” The Russian officials, he said, “are well aware that no biological weapons are being developed at the Lugar Center.” Moreover, Gamkrelidze said that “no leakages, contamination, or losses of dangerous pathogens has ever been detected, and none of the scientists working on EDPs has ever been infected.”
The so-called “Lugar Lab” is a Center for Public Health Research located in Tbilisi and named after former U.S. Senator Richard Lugar. It became operational in 2013. The Center is part of Georgia’s National Center for Disease Control (NCDC) system, within the Ministry of Labor, Health and Social Affairs. The U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) funded the Center under the 1991 Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, which was designed to dismantle Cold War-era weapons of mass destruction and convert such capabilities to exclusively peaceful scientific research. The Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR) conducts safety reviews and inspections of the U.S. activities at the Lugar Center.
In an email response to Polygraph.Info’s inquiry about whether the Lugar Center is involved in biological weapons production, a WRAIR official wrote: “No, the Lugar Center has no such purpose; it is exclusively designed for disease surveillance and monitoring. The laboratory is part of an international network of infectious disease surveillance laboratories with the mission to protect the world from deadly pathogens and the diseases they cause.”
Beth Skaggs, director of the South Caucasus Office of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), also denied that the Lugar Center is developing biological weapons. It is “a training center for biosafety and specialized laboratory testing and hosts scientists from around the world,” she said, adding that the Lugar Center “also serves as the sole repository for especially dangerous pathogens in the country. This is to ensure the safe storage and inventory of all such pathogens in the country.”
Before the Lugar Center was built, Especially Dangerous Pathogens (EDPs) in Georgia were mainly stored at a facility established in the early 20th century called the Anti-Plague Station of Georgia. (This facility was centrally controlled by Moscow until the collapse of the Soviet Union, after which it became Georgia’s Research Center for Especially Dangerous Pathogens, and later the National Center for Disease Control). In addition to the Anti-Plague Station, dangerous pathogens had also been stored at several microbiological and sanitary-hygienic research institutions throughout Georgia.
Scientists say keeping such dangerous pathogens at multiple locations heightened the risk of accidental exposure. The Lugar Center is now a national repository for human and animal EDPs, where all such pathogens are consolidated at a single secure location. The laboratory is the only Bio-Safety Level 3 (BSL-3) facility in the Caucasus region. This classification level is given only to facilities that have internationally recognized security, safety, and engineering controls in place to prevent accidental exposures to scientists or release of pathogens.
In their claim, the South Ossetian officials did not specify which “non-typical pandemic diseases” are “spread” by the Lugar Center. However, Russia’s former Chief Sanitary Inspector, Gennady Onishchenko, suggested last year that the United States may be spreading Zika-infected mosquitos in Georgia’s breakaway Abkhazia region as a form of biological warfare against Russia. He told the BBC Russian Service that the discovery of Zika-infected mosquitoes in Abkhazia’s Black Sea coast “worried” him “because about 100 kilometers from the place where this mosquito now lives, right near our borders, there is a military, microbiological laboratory of the Army of the United States.”
The CDC’s Skaggs provided a different explanation for how Zika or other viruses could appear in places not typically affected by them. She wrote that “with widespread air travel and global commerce, diseases are just a plane ride away.” She added that an increased number of “foreigners sometimes leads to the importation of diseases, such as dengue, which are not naturally found in Georgia.”
Along with the accusations of biological warfare, Russian authorities have also repeatedly claimed that the Lugar Center is closed to Russian scientists. At a meeting with students at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations last September, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused the United States of conducting biological warfare against Russia using laboratories in neighboring countries. He said that the American “refusal” to establish a joint verification mechanism of “research programs in the sphere of biology” creates grounds for suspicion that such “research is not completely peaceful.”
Georgia’s NCDC Director Gamkrelidze rejected Lavrov’s statement that the Lugar Center is closed to Russian scientists. “It is an open research facility contributing to pure scientific and public health needs in the country. The NCDC has several times invited officials of the Russian Ministry of Health to visit the Lugar Center on site. Unfortunately, so far, they did not express willingness to arrive,” wrote Gamkrelidze. However, other Russian scientists have visited the facility.
Gamkrelidze says the Lugar Center has hosted Russian media at their request three times, which conducted interviews and shot video in the labs, “although only one Russian channel, “Rossiya 24”, broadcast it.”
Finally, Russian officials have also claimed that the Lugar Center is actually a highly classified U.S. Army military facility, and is part of a network of such facilities that the Pentagon’s DTRA is using to encircle the Russian Federation with dangerous weapons laboratories. The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying that the “Georgian and American governments are making efforts to conceal the true content and direction of operations of this unit of the U.S. Army, which is involved in studying especially infectious diseases.”
Like the other claims, this one is also unsubstantiated. Contrary to the Kremlin’s claim of secrecy, Gamkrelidze wrote that the Lugar Center has had “joint research projects with German, Norwegian and other European scientists. Scientists from post-Soviet countries such as Russia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Moldova have visited the Lugar Center several times and participated in research projects.”
A Walter Reed official confirmed Gamkrelidze’s statement, saying that “the U.S., Georgian, and other international scientists at the lab work collaboratively, in a transparent environment, with the common goal to pursue cutting-edge science to help keep the world safe from dangerous diseases.”
As for the wider network, the official said that WRAIR has broad partnerships around the world, the oldest of which is an ongoing partnership with Thailand (1960). There are others in the Philippines, Cambodia, Nepal, Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda, and Tanzania, where scientists are working to develop countermeasures for malaria, HIV, enteric diseases and more.
Far from being a secret U.S. military facility aimed at developing biological weapons and threatening Russia, the Lugar Center is an open, WHO-affiliated facility aimed at preventing disease and protecting public health.