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Spotlight on biological warfare

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From Gain of Function research to biological warfare threats in Ukraine

In the summer of 2020, when the zoonotic origin story for Covid was the established consensus on how the global pandemic had been triggered, I was approached by a source who had sensed I might be receptive to a story nobody else was telling. “We are sitting on the precipice of biological warfare and nobody in the media will cover the story,” he told me.

I couldn’t quite believe my ears — what he was saying seemed extraordinary. Surely, I thought to myself, this was just silly conspiracy talk? Intrigued nonetheless, I proceeded with caution, conscious of the fact I might be being manipulated. But the more I chased the tips he gave me, the more everything he said checked out. And the more it did, the more I became an accidental expert in a story nobody seemed to want to talk about.

Today, almost everything I was told about the state of biological warfare that summer has come to pass or been confirmed.

The fog of war makes it difficult to tell the difference between truth, disinformation, and ambiguity. So doubts on many of the issues are likely to remain.

For now, however, this is still a story that remains mostly untold – left to the world’s conspiracy channels to distort.

To truly understand why the Russian Mission on Friday, March 11 asked for a meeting of the Security Council to discuss US military biological activities on Ukrainian territories, you need to understand the background. That background starts with highly relevant events in Russia and America decades ago, which are only now beginning to be remembered and patched together.

So, here’s the first part of a story I’ve been writing for over a year now. Much of it dates back to February 2021 and has since been reported out elsewhere. But even the bits that have been told haven’t been framed in the much wider historical context that offers the key to everything that’s going on.

Getting to grips with “dual use” ambiguity

If you knew anything at all about Ukrainian biolabs a week ago, it’s unlikely that you picked the information up from the mainstream media. More likely you had heard about it on the internet, social media, or even from a YouTuber like Russell Brand. Though, chances are, you would have been dismissed as a conspiracy theorist if you had dared to circulate the information further.

In the world of serious “fact checked” news, even as recently as this week, all references to secret US funded biological weapons facilities at the periphery of Russian territories, were actively being dismissed by our side as brazen Russian disinformation. Twitter had even gone to the effort of scrubbing the earliest maps and references in a Stalinist-like information purge within hours of them appearing.

And yet, maps like the below one, which had started to do the rounds on social media, weren’t entirely fake news:

By Friday, March 11, initial strategies to suppress the information were beginning to backfire. Social media was lighting up with talk of secret bioweapons programmes despite all the blocks on Russian information channels.

The reason for this was simple: there really were quasi-secret US-funded biolabs scattered all across Ukraine. And now, because we lied about their existence in the first place, the Russians were getting ahead on the spin regarding their purpose.

We would have been better off telling the truth: that the existence of those labs, while grotesque and incomprehensible to most people, probably did save lives.

And more so, that Vladimir Putin’s seeming paranoia about the positioning of the labs in the periphery of Russian territory, whilst over the top, was not entirely irrational.

How I learned to stop worrying and love biological warfare

Concerns about nation states not being honest about the size, scope, and purpose of biological defence programmes have been undermining trust in the international community since the end of WW2. For good reason too. Both the United States and the USSR have publicly admitted to running secret biological weapons laboratories in the past, meaning fears they might be inclined to restart them aren’t entirely without historical precedent.

Even now, if history is any guide, the lack of a formal hostile programme doesn’t necessarily mean one doesn’t exist.

In theory, all biodefence research facilities in the world have the potential to be turned into offensive ones for military use, due to their fundamental “dual use” nature. The jargon term refers to any technology that can be used for both peaceful or military aims with minimal adjustment.

Official documents confirm that the US Army Medical and Research Development Command at Fort Detrick in Maryland, and at the Plum Island Animal Disease Center in New York, funded by the US government, operated biological programmes for offensive military purposes up until the late 1960s.

The international community, meanwhile, discovered that the USSR, despite claims to the contrary, had been circumventing the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) of 1972 by running its secret “BioPreparat” programme from the mid-70s until the iron curtain fell in 1990. Many of these Soviet labs were based in satellite states like Ukraine and Kazakhstan and were taken over by Western interests as part of a multilateral resolution to the contravention once it was discovered.

Russian paranoia and disinformation about American biolabs in Ukraine thus understandably connect back to the circumstances that brought the Biological Weapons Convention of 1972 into being.

The original bioweapon prohibition agreement governing biological warfare use had been put together under the Geneva Protocol and signed by 38 states in 1925. While it guaranteed “no first use”, it failed to prevent development for defensive purposes and had never been signed by the United States.

By the 1960s and the Vietnam War, US President Richard Nixon found himself under pressure to deflect from the reality that chemical weapons had been used indiscriminately on innocent civilians in the Vietnam War by the Americans. The world had become fearful of what else America was capable of.

Nixon soon realised the best way to soothe tensions might be to make a gesture of peace. The suspension of America’s secret biological programmes and the signing of a biological weapon non-proliferation agreement (and the ratification of the Geneva protocol itself) fitted the bill nicely.

“The United States shall renounce the use of lethal biological agents and weapons, and all other methods of biological warfare. The United States will confine its biological research to defensive measures such as immunisation and safety measures,” proclaimed Nixon in 1969.

In a show of further public goodwill in 1971, Nixon ordered the facilities at Plum Island to be opened up for public inspection. As The New York Times reported about the opening at the time (my emphasis):

“For the first time since it was dedicated 15 years ago the Federal Government’s highly restricted and, to many who live nearby, mysterious animal disease laboratory on Plum Island opened its doors to outsiders this week. Until then the Department of Agriculture’s unique laboratory, which works with the germs that cause numerous diseases of farm animals in foreign countries and which could threaten animals in this country, had barred all but its own employees. Although the restriction was designed to minimise the risk of contaminated persons accidentally carrying dangerous microbes to the mainland and starting epidemics, it has been viewed by some as supporting an old and always denied rumour that Plum Island’s scientists were doing germ-warfare research.”

But Nixon’s move wasn’t entirely opportunistic.

The US President had already been quietly persuaded by Matthew Meselson, a Harvard academic specialising in genetic and molecular biology, that ending the secret programmes made tactical sense.

What Meselson had pointed out was that, rather than bolstering American security, too much government funding for biological weapons development would reduce costs to the point of making it a “poor man’s nukes”. This, Meselson said, would upset the balance of mutual assured destruction because it upped the chances that an irrational rogue agent could gain access to a weapon of mass destruction. The moment that happened, American nuclear supremacy would be challenged, and world peace would be put at risk.

In 1972, along with another 100 or so states (including nuclear powers the United Kingdom and the USSR), Nixon finally brought America into the offshoot BWC. The agreement formally prohibited the signatories from making biological weapons for offensive military use.

As far as the public was concerned, this was a significant step in global biological weapons disarmament. The problem was, again, that this wasn’t quite true.

A continuing allowance for research and development for defensive or prophylactic purposes meant it soon became impossible to know who was sticking to the ruling. Some say the structural ambiguity may even have juiced up the paranoia between nation states and been the key force that catalysed biological weapons development.

But that wasn’t the only problem. As Andy Weber, the former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs under the Obama administration told me while I was still at the FT, the BWC’s lack of an enforcement, verification, or inspection mechanism also led to uncomfortable uncertainty. The ambiguity juiced the game theoretical paranoia on all sides, increasing the chances of treaty contravention along prisoner’s dilemma lines.

James Leonard, the US chief negotiator of the convention, later described the deal he had brokered as nothing more than a “gentleman’s agreement.”

By 2004, the paradox in the convention had become abundantly clear even to the makers of parody films like Team America. In one of the movie’s scenes, the puppet of UN weapons inspector Hans Blix confronts that of North Korea’s former supreme leader Kim Jong-Il threatening him that if he does not grant the UN access to inspect his weapons the UN “will be very, very angry with you”. Asked what then? Blix replies, “we will write you a letter telling you how angry we are”.

Russia’s BioPreparat as an echo in time

The first big test of the convention came in 1979 when a lab leak incident in a biological weapons facility in Yekaterinburg, Russia, involving a worker who had failed to replace a filter correctly, accidentally released anthrax into the city, killing well over 100 people.

Since the Soviets had signed the BWC, they couldn’t officially admit to having a biological weapons programme. So, they covered the incident up. They claimed instead that the anthrax had originated from an unhygienic wet market near the factory and the eating of tainted meat. (An eerily familiar story.)

It wasn’t until 1986, on the back of mounting pressure from the Americans to make sure that something else had not gone awry, that the Soviets finally gave Meselson — now in proto weapons inspections mode — the opportunity to investigate the outbreak. On the ground, however, Meselson was only given limited access to facilities. Without evidence to the contrary, he found himself concluding that the official Russian explanation was “plausible and consistent with what is known from medical literature and recorded human experiences with anthrax”.

It wasn’t long, however, before Russian defectors coming to Britain at the end of the 1980s (such as Vladimir Pasechnik) gave reason to doubt the “natural origins” theory. They claimed not just that a Soviet violation of the BWC had occurred but that a major coverup had been engaged in. Pasechnik later settled in Salisbury, where he was given a job at the UK’s own secretive Porton Down biological facilities (not far from where the Russians would later strike to take out Sergei and Yulia Skripal with nerve agent Novichok. Skripal had ended up in Salisbury after being relocated there as part of a spy exchange, after being accused by the FSB for having spied for MI6 in the 1990s).

The backdoor diplomacy that followed on from this evidence established a secretive trilateral process between Russia, the United States, and the UK involving mutual on-site inspections at each other’s facilities.

After the USSR officially disbanded in 1991 it also led to Russia’s leader, Boris Yeltsin, finally admitting in 1992 that the Yekaterinburg incident had been caused by the Soviet military.

But the process wasn’t done yet. Russian admission to secret programmes was one thing. Understanding the full scope and scale of the contravention was another.  The pathway was opened to a series of formal UN-supervised inspections, beginning in 1991 and continuing on until 1994. These were led by British biological warfare expert David Kelly, then a superintendent of the Defence Microbiology Division at Porton Down.

Having gained access to the Soviet facilities, Kelly used information gleaned from Pasechnik to uncover — to the surprise of the world — over 50 facilities working on active biological weapons programmes. These included 50,000 scientists and engineers developing smallpox, Ebola, and Marburg virus as biological weapons.

Other findings included intercontinental Ballistic Missiles in underground silos with warheads carrying smallpox virus and ready to launch within minutes. Kelly also discovered that while the Soviet Union had provided the western world with free smallpox vaccines, they strategically did not work on the particular strain the missiles had been loaded with. The vaccine that would be provided to Russian citizens did.

Ken Alibek, another BioPreparat defector who had joined the programme in 1975 but risen to become the deputy chief of the agency from 1988 to 1992, later explained to me how the Russians tactically deployed vaccines to their troops to ensure they would be protected from any potential blowback from the use of their own biological weapons. “If you develop offensive things, you need to understand what kind of protection you can have yourself because nobody wants to infect all troops,” he said.

“This is why, for example, for plague, there was a special vaccine usually injectable, but the vaccine was developed also for inter-nasal application.”

The advantage of inter-nasal application, Alibek noted, was that an entire battalion could be quickly inoculated by simply being sat in a closed environment and flooded with aerosols. “They sit for half an hour, inhale everything, it’s really simple, the battalions are getting vaccinated,” he explained.

But it took years to get to the details of these programmes out of Russia.

Throughout most of the investigations, Kelly and his fellow inspectors were met with continuous denials and evasions. According to a report in the Sunday Times on March 27, 1994, “In every facility that had been opened for inspection…the Russians had established convincing cover stories that made it appear as if each site had been converted to research and manufacture of vaccines. The secret work continued in parts of the sites that were never visited”.

Kelly, who later became the senior adviser to the directorate of counter proliferation and arms control of the UK Ministry of Defence, committed suicide on July 17, 2003.*

The decommissioning backstory to Ukraine

The fallout from the UN discoveries led to a new trilateral agreement between the US, UK, and Russia in 1992, guaranteeing the decommissioning of all of Russia’s historic stockpiles of bioweapons. The process recommitted all three powers to the termination of offensive research, the dismantlement of experimental technological lines for the production of biological agents, and the closure of the biological weapons testing facility in the Aral Sea.

But before the deal could be signed, the Russians demanded reciprocal visits to US facilities to ease their own paranoias. According to Michael Moodie, the co-founder of the Chemical and Biological Arms Control Institute (CBACI), these included visits in 1991 to the US Army Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, a key component of the DoD’s biological defence programme and a facility at Pine Bluff, which had previously operated as a bioweapon production facility in the 1950s.

Then in February 1994, the Russians demanded to visit a production facility of the Pfizer Corporation in Vigo, Indiana, a Pfizer research facility in Groton, Connecticut, and further US facilities on Plum Island. Later, in 1994, they also sought to visit a facility called Evans Medical in Liverpool, in the UK, (now owned by flu vaccine maker Seqirus).

The rationale for the private sector visits was that the Russians had become convinced that the US never really disbanded its secret programmes in 1972 but rather had only outsourced them to the private sector.

The final Russian report filed about the visit stated that evidence of an ongoing US programme had been discovered, something the American side denied.

The tactical weaponisation of whataboutism

Whether the mutual inspections that took place in the 90s really engendered trust between the key participants is still up for debate. The Russians, on their part, did everything they could to distort the process in their favour, says Michael Moodie.

Returning from one visit to a Pfizer location, they reportedly claimed the private plant had been “producing biological weapons” and “modernising the equipment designed earlier to produce biological warfare formulas.” They then claimed that “US commercial pharmaceutical plants were providing a standby capacity to enable the US government to renew BW production,” which Moodie highlighted was a “mirror image” of the expressed US concerns.

In his final report regarding the Trilateral process, David Kelly noted that “Pfizer was so concerned about the protection of commercial proprietary information at both locations that it took the personal intervention of Vice-President Al Gore before it would permit the visits to proceed”.

The move allegedly sent shock waves through the American Pharmaceutical industry due to the scope of the political intrusion.

Kelly concluded that while the idea of using reciprocity as a bartering tool to get in to see Russian facilities seemed logical during the negotiation process. In reality, it proved “the first step in the erosion of American and British confidence in the process, since it served to deflect the emphasis of the inquiry away from Russia and enable it to make counter-allegations about Western activities.”

Writing in 2001, Moodie noted, “the reciprocity gave Moscow the opportunity to portray the issue as something other than an exercise to address concerns about its noncompliance,” and “to allege US noncompliance in a tit-for-tat fashion.”

Veteran BBC Panorama reporter, Tom Mangold, described it in his 2000 book Plague Warsas a “perversion of the truth” which was not lost on the US pharmaceutical industry.

To restore trust, confidence building measures were attempted at most five-year review meetings of the BWC as a conciliatory process. But experts agree they did little to undo the damage that had been done.

According to Andy Weber, the distrust sowed by these previous contraventions may even have compromised the international community’s ability to investigate contemporary outbreaks, such as the events leading up to the Covid-19 pandemic in China.

“In the case of Wuhan there’s no allegation of use of biological weapons. If it was a lab leak it clearly was accidental, probably due to what we call a laboratory acquired infection,” Weber said. “But the WHO investigation with Chinese consent, had the appearance of a bit of a sham investigation that didn’t really uncover anything.” That leaves only the Secretary General of the United Nations with a mechanism to investigate potential use of biological weapons in such circumstances. A slow process which would be impossible to get off the ground quickly.

In the context of the Ukrainian biolabs, the lack of a formal inspection protocol leaves the door wide open for both sides to engineer plausible cover stories for the purpose of projecting blame onto the other in the event of a biological weapons attack. “This is a serious concern making the rounds in the biosecurity expert community,” said Filippa Lentzos, a social scientist researching biological agent threats at King’s College London.

How the Bush administration weaponised “biodefense”

By the 2000s, the international community once again became concerned about the lack of an inspection mechanism to keep compliance with the BWC in check. Fresh efforts soon emerged to try and close the loophole.

What the private pharmaceutical companies feared most, however, was a repeat of the shambolic Russian inspection process they had been forced to endure in the 1990s.

They fiercely lobbied the George “Dubya” Bush Administration to avoid such measures at all costs. The President’s team complied and blocked any expansion of the agreement.

As Kelly noted in his concluding report on the breakdown of the expansion process: “the intensely negative reaction of the Pfizer Corporation and subsequently the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America to the Russian visits to American commercial sites was a contributory factor in the American rejection of the draft verification protocol for the BWC in July 2001.”

With the BWC proving increasingly ineffective, Mangold says the US administration turned towards trying “to block the brain drain from Russian research institutes to rogue nations” using programmes such as the “Pathogens Initiative”, funded by the National Academy of Sciences, “to disarm the biological warfare establishments by firing hard currency at them for productive, non-military work.”

The move set a precedent for extensive collaboration between foreign scientists and American microbiologists in a bid to learn more about potential biological weapons research going on in low-trust jurisdictions. It also provided a way to manage scientific researchers previously associated with the programmes.

This was also the key rationale for providing US funding, often via the Defence Threat Reduction Agency, to foreign biolabs. If you fund it, you can influence it, was the theory.

In this context, in the years leading up to the second Iraq War in 2003, the challenge for the UK and US increasingly became how to manage a successful decommissioning process without inadvertently allowing stocks or know-how to fall into the hands of the black market and rogue players.

Combined with escalating bioterrorism fears following a series of mysterious anthrax attacks struck Capitol Hill in 2001, fears American bioterrorism fears further – the situation soon led to the Bush Administration’s passing of the American BioShield Act in 2004.

This acted as a shot in the arm to collaborative processes between American scientists and the defence sector more widely. The purpose of Project BioShield, as it became known, was to incentivise the private sector to invest in the research and development of vaccines and therapeutics against potential biological threats that did not as yet exist. As well as providing long-term funding to such projects, the programme also reduced legal liabilities and regulator-approved pathways for private sector companies operating under its parameters.

According to Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institutes of Health, and the leader of America’s Covid response, the pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies needed assurances that a market for these sorts of products would exist should they invest the resources to develop them. “To provide these incentives, BioShield established a Special Reserve Fund for the purchase of biodefense countermeasures to be placed in the Strategic National Stockpile for use in an emergency,” Fauci told a Congressional testimony in 2007.

A year earlier, Project BioShield had already fallen under the responsibility of the newly created agency called the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), created to facilitate collaboration, and promote innovation on bioterrorism and pandemic preparedness by providing further incentives to the private sector.

Over at North Carolina Chapel Hill, meanwhile, a certain Dr Ralph Baric, became the beneficiary of related NIH programmes intended to set up centres for excellence in biodefense and emerging disease across the country. “There were 8-10 of these centres across the US and designed to develop drugs, vaccines and immunotherapeutic against pathogens of concern,” a spokesman for UNC confirmed. “Dr Baric was a co-investigator, along with dozens of other researchers from multiple institutions across the southeast.”

In this way, the path from biological weapons controls to off the books gain of function research – now at the centre of investigations into the origins of Covid-19 – was set.

More on that in part two next week.

*David Kelly was named as the source for a controversial BBC report by Andrew Gilligan, now a special adviser to Boris Johnson, which claimed Downing Street had “sexed up” a dossier on Iraq’s weapons capability to justify an allied attack on the country in 2003. It later transpired that a key claim in the dossier about Iraq’s ability to deploy weapons of mass destruction in 45 minutes had been left out of the original because of low confidence in the sourcing.
Kelly, who was involved in the drafting, did not have access to Iraq at the time and was dependent on intelligence from security services. He had previously inspected Iraqi facilities as a UN inspector for UNSCOM, interviewing “Dr Germ” Rihab Taha, allegedly making her cry. Hans Blix (who did have access under the UNMOVIC inspection) concluded in 2003 that “so far, UNMOVIC has not found any such weapons,” contradicting the UK dossier.
Two days after giving evidence to a Foreign Affairs committee regarding the dossier, David Kelly was found dead in an Oxfordshire woodland, having taken his own life.
Kelly was a key source for BBC Panorama reporter Tom Mangold, author of the Plague Wars. The two had developed a friendship and after his death Mangold represented Kelly’s family to the press. Mangold always defended the official narrative that Kelly had committed suicide after realising he may be found in breach of the official secrets act.

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