On March 30, the Russian site Newsfront published a story headlined: “How karma works: Is it possible that COVID-19 is a successful project of the USA?”
The article revisits a number of Russian disinformation themes – specifically, conspiracy theories alleging that U.S.-funded biological research laboratories in other countries are secretly developing biological weapons. Although no solid evidence has been produced to support these claims, Russian media, officials, and pro-Kremlin websites have repeated them since long before COVID-19 appeared.
A frequent target of such claims is the Richard Lugar Center for Public Health Research, also known as the Lugar Lab, located in Tbilisi, Georgia. For years, it repeatedly has been accused of producing biological weapons and performing experiments on unsuspecting human patients. (The center is named after longtime U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, who died last year.)
Polygraph.info and other fact-checking sites have refuted many of these claims.
Seeking to tie the Lugar Lab to COVID-19, the Newsfront article states: “The laboratory is studying especially dangerous infectious diseases, but it hides the true motives of its research, which may indicate the possibility of developing biological weapons.”
That is false.
There is no public evidence that the Lugar Lab is involved with biological weapons or that it “hides the true motives of its research.” This article also mentioned a laboratory in Ukraine – the Research Institute of Epidemiology and Hygiene, located in Lviv – and incorrectly said a 2005 agreement signed between Ukraine’s health ministry and the U.S. Department of Defense allows these facilities to develop biological weapons.
Newsfront did not link to the agreement or any news story covering it. In August 2017, the Ukrainian fact-checking organization StopFake debunked similar claims.
The work between the Pentagon and Ukrainian research laboratories is part of the U.S. Biological Threat Reduction program, designed “to counter the threat of outbreaks (deliberate, accidental, or natural) of the world’s most dangerous infectious diseases.” The 2005 agreement is aimed at preventing and controlling the spread of pathogens which could be used to produce biological weapons, not at developing such weapons.
Newsfront’s suggestion that the COVID-19 pandemic is a U.S. plot and that the virus was engineered in a laboratory ignores key facts.
For one, scientists working for the Scripps Research Institute found that the coronavirus, known as SARS-Cov-2, evolved naturally. Secondly, the Lugar Lab has been open about its activities, and there have been no public reports that it is involved in developing biological weapons or performs illegal experiments on humans.
In October 2017, Polygraph.info reported that the center is a partner with the World Health Organization and subject to international health standards. Moreover, the research center has been repeatedly inspected by internationally recognized scientists. In September 2018 in response to more Russian allegations, the center extended an open invitation to international experts to visit the laboratory, where, according to one such visitor, they were given access to “all areas of the site, examined relevant documentation, and interviewed staff.”
In November 2018, the BBC reported on the then-latest Russian claims about the site, which revolved around allegations made by the former head of Georgia’s state security, Igor Giorgadze, who claimed the Lugar center had been carrying out secret experiments on humans. Giorgadze, an ex-KGB operative and politician, alleged that unapproved drugs had been used to treat patients with hepatitis C.
The BBC report found that the allegations were false. The hepatitis research program was public knowledge, and the drugs involved in the study, Solvadi and Harvoni, had been approved for use in the U.S. in 2013 and 2014, respectively. The BBC report also noted that both are listed as “essential medicines” by the WHO, which had praised Georgia’s anti-hepatitis C campaign.
The European Union-funded fact-check program EuvsDisinfo recently accused Russia of spreading disinformation about the origin and spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, a charge that Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed as a “Russophobic obsession.” EuvsDisinfo was able to document examples of Russian state news outlets and other pro-Kremlin outlets putting out disinformation stories, some of which repeated the claim that the virus was engineered in a U.S. laboratory.