Pentagon denies Russia’s claim that the US is running a secret biological weapons lab near border of China and Georgia
The head of the Russian military’s radiation, chemical and biological protection troops said the facility was part of a network of US labs near the Russian and Chinese borders
Russia’s defence ministry said on Thursday that the US appeared to be running a clandestine biological weapons lab in the country of Georgia, allegedly flouting international conventions and posing a direct security threat to Russia – allegations the Pentagon angrily rejected.
The exceptional accusations from Moscow came the same day that US, British and Dutch officials accused Russian military intelligence of being behind multiple cyberattacks.
Major General Igor Kirillov, the head of the Russian military’s radiation, chemical and biological protection troops, alleged at a briefing that the lab in Georgia was part of a network of US labs near the borders of Russia and China.
The allegations were based largely on materials about the US-funded Richard G. Lugar Centre for Public Health Research in Tbilisi, Georgia.
Kirillov claimed the documents, released by former Georgian State Security Minister Igor Giorgadze, showed the facility was funded entirely by the US and that the Georgian ownership it has on paper was a cover.
Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon strongly rejected Kirillov’s claims, calling them “an invention of the imaginative and false Russian disinformation campaign against the West” and “obvious attempts to divert attention from Russia’s bad behaviour on many fronts”.
“The US is not developing biological weapons in the Lugar Centre,” Pahon said.
He said the lab, a joint human and veterinary public health facility, was owned and operated by the Georgian National Centre for Disease Control and Public Health, not the US.
“The mission of the Lugar Centre is to contribute to protection of citizens from biological threats, promote public and animal health through infectious disease detection, epidemiological surveillance, and research for the benefit of Georgia, the Caucasus region and the global community,” Pahon said.
The centre opened in 2013 and was named for former US Senator Richard Lugar. Before he left Congress, the Indiana Republican was part of a bipartisan US effort to help secure the Soviet arsenal of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction after the 1991 break-up of the Soviet Union.
Kirillov said the documents published by Giorgadze signalled more sinister activities were happening under the cover of civilian research.
He noted that Giorgadze’s materials cited the deaths of 73 volunteers who took part in tests of a new drug at the lab in 2015-2016. The claim could not be independently confirmed.
Kirillov alleged the deaths showed the Lugar Centre used the volunteers as guinea pigs in tests of a new deadly toxin.
“The near simultaneous deaths of a large number of volunteers give reason to believe that the Lugar Centre was researching a highly toxic and highly lethal chemical or biological agent,” he said.
The Russian general also claimed that the spread of viral diseases in southern Russia could have been linked to the activities of the Lugar Centre. He pointed to the spread of the African swine fever from Georgia since 2007 that caused massive losses for the Russian farm sector.
Ticks carrying the Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever, a deadly viral disease, also spread across several regions of southern Russia in an unusual pattern, another sign of the US lab’s alleged involvement, Kirillov said, without specifying a time period.
“It’s highly likely that the US is building up its military biological potential under the cover of studying protective means and conducting other peaceful research, flouting international agreements,” he said.
Among the documents released by Giorgadze was a US patent for a drone intended to disseminate infected insects, he said. Other patents covered projectiles for delivering chemical and biological agents.
“Such research doesn’t conform to Washington’s international obligations regarding the ban on biological and toxin weapons,” Kirillov said.
“A legitimate question is why such documents are being stored in the Lugar Centre for Public Health Research. We hope to receive a precise answer from Georgia and the United States.”
He noted that Russia was worried about the US military commissioning the collection of genetic materials of people from various regions of Russia, including the North Caucasus, and was unsure of the project’s purpose.
The lab in Georgia is “just a small element of a part of a sprawling military and biological programme of the United States,” the general said, adding that the Pentagon allegedly has other labs in countries neighbouring Russia.
“The choice of location for such labs isn’t accidental,” Kirillov said, characterising the research facilities as “a constant source of biological threats” to Russia and China.