Earlier this week I hosted a Twitter Spaces session with two world-leading experts in the field of biodefence, Filippa Lentzos from King’s College London and Greg Koblentz, of George Mason University to try and get to the bottom of Russian claims that Ukrainian biolabs are secretly engaged in offensive biological weapon development. The below is an edited transcript of the conversation.
[Since the Twitter Spaces session occurred, Putin has doubled down on these claims, telling Russian officials he believes Ukrainian biolabs are operating under the command of the Pentagon and conducting experiments with coronavirus, anthrax, cholera, African swine disease and other deadly diseases. He further claimed evidence of the secret programmes was being destroyed, but that the Russian side has now obtained everything it needs to prove what was happening on its borders. This, he has implied, was a motivation for launching the special military operation in Ukrainian territory.]
The TLDR of the conversation is that the labs are engaged in biodefense work for peaceful purposes focused primarily on researching diseases that are endemic in the region. That Russia has a long history of accusing its enemies of doing exactly what it itself is doing. That these facilities were funded by Western interests in part to help with the decommissioning of Russia’s former secret weapons programme. That the dual use nature of biodefense research introduces many ambiguities that can be easily exploited in disinformation strategies. And that there is a risk of a Russian false flag event.
Points of interest are highlighted. To listen to the original recording click here, (but be sure to skip past the first 10 mins of technical issues).
Edited Transcript: Monday, March 14, 2022
Izabella: Why don’t you give a little bit of background about who you are and what your credentials are on this particular topic?
Greg: thank you Izabella for organising this. Hi, everybody. My name is Greg Koblentz. I’m an associate professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. And I’m director of our bio defence graduate programme. And I’m also a member of the scientists working group on chemical biological security at the Centre for arms control, nonproliferation. I’ve been working on issues related to the bio weapons and bio Defence for more than 20 years. And most recently, the Filippa and I have been doing research on maximum containment laboratories, more commonly known as biosafetyly level four (BSL4) labs around the world in order to improve transparency, and better understand the national and global governance mechanisms in place to make sure these labs are operating safely, securely, and responsibly.
Filippa: I am a senior lecturer at King’s College London, we have a joint appointment in war studies and in the Department of Global Health and Social medicine, I am co-director of our centre for science and security studies. I have a big interest in bio-risk management, in biological labs around the world, in biosecurity, biosafety, and biological disarmament.
Izabella: COVID introduced many of us to the idea of viruses, pathogens as a pandemic risk and also biowarfare risk, in that we are now cognisant of these risks on a much more global level in terms of their potential misuse. But with respect to what’s going on in Ukraine, there is a big backstory as to how biolabs in the former Soviet Union got there, how they operate, and for what purpose those labs are effectively funded by potentially foreign money.
I think one of the issues is that people are very confused at the moment, because on one hand, when people were pointing out on Twitter, that there were these BioLabs, they immediately got suppressed. A lot of this information was taken down, and of course, that was because it was presented in the wrong context but this sort of very knee jerk reaction by social media, it shot ourselves in the foot because it actually added to the suspicion and potentially fueled the ability for Russia to use that sort of suppression as a disinformation tool in and of itself.
So what is the truth in terms of these Biolabs that we keep hearing about from the Russian side?
Filippa: Well, what is the truth? The truth is: there are several labs in Ukraine. These are public health labs. These work on developing diagnostics, they develop countermeasures, they do research on dangerous pathogens to learn more about them. They also do research on not very dangerous pathogens to learn more about them — so different kinds of bacteria and viruses. Some of these labs do have dangerous pathogens, and some of them do receive funding from the United States. They also received funding from other partners. Now, all of that is true, but none of that equates to a biological weapons programme. And I think part of the difficulty with these disinformation campaigns is that there certainly is a kernel of truth and sometimes there’s a fair bit of truth in what they talk about or in the stories that they promulgate. But of course, there’s all kinds of falsehoods in there as well.
So often you as the receiver of these stories, have to connect those dots yourself. And so, I think that speaks to a little bit what you were saying Izabella, about how we’re shooting ourselves in the foot a little bit by trying to take down information or trying to, you know, directly address some of the untruths or you know, that are out there. So we’re all still learning how to tackle disinformation. But the truth of it is, there is no real basis to any claims about biological weapons. This echoes previous disinformation campaigns that are actually not unlike the one we were kind of in the midst of right now. What is my final point is it the one, the one way in which it is very different to previous disinformation campaigns is because we now have so much social media, the speed and the reach of this disinformation campaign is much quicker than previously. And also they are, you know, much more high profile than they have been previously. So, today we have discussions in the Security Council about this disinformation campaign, rather than, you know, it circulating in various newspapers around the globe over several years, which is the case in the past.
Izabella: Can you run us through exactly what happened at the Security Council? What’s the broader context of what was going on there? And what’s the framework that these claims and counterclaims came about in?
Greg: So this really started on Thursday, when the Russian Ministry of Defence gave a briefing on the allegations that Philippa mentioned in terms of work that was being conducted in Ukraine, reportedly on different types of dangerous pathogens for use as weapons. And these were all in labs, supported by the US Department of Defence and other agencies, international partners. And, you know, a number of allegations were made at this briefing and then that was the basis for the presentation by the Russian ambassador at the UN Security Council, which then received a very strong pushback from pretty much every member of the Council except for China.
And just to put this in, in context, this is not a new issue, in the sense that Russia has been making these kinds of allegations about different labs operating in countries they don’t like including Ukraine, and Georgia. And so this is something they’ve been doing for the last 10 years or so. But also, this ties into a much longer history of Russian disinformation, and especially the use of allegations around biological weapons going back to the 1980s, when the KGB started a rumour that the United States created the HIV virus. So this is a long standing tactic by the Kremlin, to spread misinformation about these kinds of issues. And they’ve now taken that and put it on steroids in the light of the conflict in Ukraine as a way to create a smokescreen, and distract people from the real issues.
Izabella: The history of the disinformation in this space is quite extraordinary. I was myself quite shocked at the breadth of the history in this area. And of course, the backstory to BioPreparat which many people probably are not aware of, and the disinformation circulated around that. But before we get into that, because a lot of us are not schooled in this topic, perhaps run us through the very concept of dual use technology as it applies to biological weapons, and why that in itself is a potential tool for disinformants because of its ambiguity?
Filippa: The way we think about dual use when it comes to weapons and disarmament is that it can be used either for public good or it can be misused, to deliberately cause harm. And so when it comes to the biological side of things, this gets very complicated because you can’t really say whether a pathogen that you’re working with or a biological agent that you’re working with, whether you’re, say wanting to develop a vaccine or if you’re wanting to use it as a weapon, because you can use the same material to develop both. That is, of course, a huge simplification. But that is essentially the idea behind dual use and so you can’t on the biological side — unlike the nuclear side where it’s very clear, and you say, well, this is clearly for weapons purposes, and this is clearly for industrial or good purposes. On the biological side, you can’t say, “oh, well, if you’ve got X litres of pathogens, then you’ve brewn up X litres of pathogens”, and that is, for hostile purposes. It’s not that simple. Or if you’ve got this equipment, and it’s this big, then that’s clearly for nefarious purposes. That’s not the case. It can be very difficult to say whether it’s for good or for bad, because you can use the same equipment, pretty much, you can use the same material, you can use the same knowledge for good or bad. So the way the Biological Weapons Convention, the treaty that prohibits biological weapons has gotten around this is to say, okay, we’re not going to ban certain materials, like bacteria, or viruses, or certain equipment or any of that stuff. We’re not banning it, we’re saying you’re not allowed to use it, if it’s not for peaceful purposes. So it comes down to intent.
You have to judge whether countries are in compliance based on the intent of what they’re doing. And this is the cause of a lot of this ambiguity, making it very difficult to get clear assessments on compliance. And so there is a whole history, not just of disinformation campaigns, but also biological weapons, allegations, historically in the Cold War between the Soviet side and Soviet allies, like North Korea, and Cuba and China, and the West, and the United States. There have been allegations between these two sides, and their allies about biological weapons use, none of which has come to anything, none of which has been proven that there has been any bioweapons use, and most of the time, these have just been empty allegations. But you do have that history of ambiguity.
There are also cases of course, and you mentioned Biopreparat, and I think it is probably important , because the way in which we keep talking about biological weapons and disinformation campaigns could make it seem as though there’s nothing there and there had never have been any biological weapons. But that is not the case. There have been major efforts and national programmes to develop biological weapons in the past.
One of the earlier ones was the Japanese programme, which was very large in scope, and also did live vivisection. So all kinds of experimentations on humans. But all major actors in WW2 really had biological weapons programmes. The United States had a large offensive programme, which was closed down following President Nixon’s decision to unilaterally stop, which then paved the way for the Biological Weapons Convention, but the Soviet Union…it was really after the Soviet Union signed or agreed to the Biological Weapons Convention that it started its extremely rapid expanse of its programme, which ended up being the largest programme the world has ever known with estimates of people involved between 30-60,000. We have no clear fingers on that so the estimates do vary. But you do get a sense of the scale from that.
And of course, there have also there have also been other smaller programmes around the world more recently. When we think of Iraq, we often think, Oh, well, they certainly didn’t find any weapons there because that was the most recent warrant is 2003. But of course, in the decade before there, there have been UN weapons inspectors going in and actually getting rid of the biological weapons programme that had been there so they had done their job by the time 2003 War came around, so there have been programmes, and there have also been a lot of allegations. And I think that is part of this. The the lack of clarity we have on a number of these claims that we’re now hearing.
Greg: Just to kind of reinforce couple points that Filippa made, the dual use problem is very strong in the area of bioweapons. And biodefence, it’s a much harder problem than in the fields of chemical weapons or nuclear weapons. But that being said, there are some indicators that you can look at in a country or programme or facility to get a better sense of whether or not this is a legitimate civilian institution, or this is part of a bioweapons programme. So facilities that are top secret, where outsiders are not allowed in facilities that are run by the military facilities that have large scale ability to produce dangerous pathogens, that have the ability to do aerosol testing of these pathogens, which is the key way to disseminate a biological agent as part of a biological weapon. These are all features that could indicate an offensive alleged weapons programme. No one has said that Ukraine has any of these indicators. Russia, however, does. There are three secret military microbiology facilities in Russia that they inherited from the Soviet Union, that were part of the Soviet offensive programme, and have been not only maintained but but upgraded over the years. So this is a pretty clearly case of, you know, Russia accusing Ukraine of what Russia itself is actually doing.
And on the specific Russian allegations, the Russians have picked out a couple areas of research that they say are highly suspicious and are the basis for their claims that there’s this secret by a weapons programme in Ukraine. But all the research they cite is conducted by civilian public health laboratories. The research is all done openly. They even publish in peer reviewed scientific journals about what they’re doing, they get public presentations about it. And these are all either diseases or vectors that are a public health problem in Ukraine. So the issue of H1N1 one being carried, which is Avian influenza being carried by migratory bird that is a known vector for that disease, and there’s no problem for causing outbreaks of that influenza virus around Europe. Studying migratory bird patterns in Ukraine and how they might be related to the spread of H1N1 is a legitimate public health and veterinary health endeavour.
One of the other pathogens that Russia raised red flags about is something called Crimean Congo hemorrhagic fever. And as the name implies this was a virus first discovered in Crimea in 1944. So this is a virus that is endemic to Ukraine. So for Ukrainian scientists to be studying a disease that is present in their country is logical and makes sense. And it’s being done in a public health as part of a public health mission. So, again, the Russian allegations have kind of tried to take advantage of the level of transparency that the United States and Ukraine have been conducting this research in and trying to make it sound nefarious or malicious. But there’s really no no basis for that. And again, it fits this long standing Russian tactic of using the kind of ambiguity that Filippa I mentioned already, as ways to cast dispersions and raise suspicons in ways that serve, you know, Russia’s foreign policy interests.
Izabella: I think it might be worth explaining how many BioLabs there are more broadly around the world? I think Filippa, you’ve done some work on this specifically. So what’s the context in terms of how common biolab facilities are in most sort of countries these days? And what are the scales of biolab to worry about?
Filippa: That’s actually work that I’m doing together with Greg so we can both speak to this. And Greg, just jump in after I’m done. I’m sure I’ll leave loads of interesting things out. But our project was essentially to map BSL4 labs around the world and BSL4 are the labs that have the highest containment levels so you can have the most dangerous bacteria or viruses there, and you can work safely with them in those facilities. And the reason our project came around was really during the pandemic, and there were lots of questions from journalists asking us, so how many of these labs are there? A lot of this was in the context of the Wuhan instead of virology (WIV). And people wanted to get some more context about what how many of these labs are there around the world.
And all we could say, really, in response was, well, you know, there isn’t an official list, because there is no international body that has a mandate to collect this information, to have any oversight of these facilities. And so we thought, actually, maybe we need to start getting that list together. So essentially, what we did was started mapping all of these labs around the world. And it sounds like it would be pretty easy to do. But actually, it’s not that simple because you’ve got to decide whether, you know, a facility in one country is the same as another facility in another country, right. And so because different countries will have slightly different variations on them. BSL4, that’s the most dangerous one less, they can deal with the most dangerous pathogens. Below that you got BSL3, and then two and then one. So you’ve got kind of these measures for yes, these are, this risk level pathogen must be dealt with in a containment facility where you have these in these safety measures, biosafety and biosecurity measures to manage the risks from those pathogens.
There are now also some labs as well, we just make ours a little bit safer. And that makes it that makes our labs a BSL3+, which means it becomes becomes very difficult to distinguish all of these labs. But essentially, what we’ve done is we’ve tried to map these BSLL4 labs globally, we’ve gotten to about 60 or so. There’s been a large number of new labs added in the last few years. And that trend is definitely increasing following the pandemic. And, you know, there are some concerns about where labs are placed. The extent to which biosafety and biosecurity just by risk management really is consistent across the globe, and those kinds of things.
Those are not at all the labs we’re talking about when we’re talking about Ukraine. So I said those, there have been no lists of BSL4 labs globally. Most countries have a list of how many labs they have in their own country. And that, you know, isn’t so many. Europe, incidentally, has the greatest density of BSL4 labs, the United States is that one country that has the most of these labs. But essentially, these BSL4 labs — it’s a manageable figure. For BSL3 labs, there are countries that simply have no idea how many BSL3 labs they have in their country. I mean these are the very big countries. Globally, we have absolutely no clue. And, you know, there are thousands and BSL2, the very low level, there’s no way you could get to that point of knowing how many of those labs you have.
So what we’re talking about in Ukraine are not BSL4 labs, the Ukraine does not have a BSL4 lab, it does have a couple of BSL3 labs, but the rest are pretty much all BSL2 labs.
Izabella: Is the lack of BSL4 labs in Ukraine indicative of the fact that we shouldn’t be worried about these labs, or is there a risk that there are pathogens at these BSL3 labs that that might be accidentally released in a theatre of war situation?
Filippa: Well, that is an interesting question. I mean, we shouldn’t think of BSL4 labs as bad things, right. They are built so that we can work safely and securely with these pathogens. The thing is, there are some risks with that work. And so it’s important we have the right sort of virus management in place to tackle the work that’s going on there to make sure these pathogens are stored safely and securely? In Ukraine? There, there are some labs. So they do have a couple of these BSL3 labs, where they do work with fairly dangerous pathogens. And there is this question about what do we do in war situations with these labs, like you were saying, so what should we be concerned about? Are these facilities built to withstand, you know, missile attacks? I don’t think that’s usually part of the spec, when you’re building these facilities, that’s not to say, you know, that they’re built of paper, they’re pretty solid, what happens you have vials of, you know, like little test tubes, little vials containing bacteria and viruses in freezers. So even if your power gets knocked out, and your jet generators, backup generators don’t work, you still have the pathogens inside the freezer. So it’s not as though there will be this immediate spread of pathogens to the surrounding area.
So I would judge the risk of a kind of missile attack or a bomb attack on one of these facilities causing a spread of disease is very unlikely. I think when we’re talking about spread of diseases in the context of Ukraine, we should be much more worried about people not having access to clean water, and those kinds of things. So I don’t think that is a major concern that these facilities will spread pathogens. I also don’t think, which has kind of been characterised in a lot of the stories going around about this disinformation, that there is a concern that Russian forces will come and take control of these labs, and thereby they will have access to certain blueprints for how to make weapons, or they’ll have access to pathogens that they’ve not had access to before, or they’ll have access to experimental protocols that they don’t know about. I think that’s also very unlikely.
Russia has a lot in their own freezers. So I don’t think that’s really a concern. I think the main concern is really that Russian forces will come and you know, conveniently find evidence of some nefarious activity, essentially planting evidence. So I think that is the main concern about Russian forces taking some of these labs, I have heard and many have referred to — and I will be very keen to hear others take on this –there was a report from Reuters, saying that the who has advised Ukraine, in fact, on the day of invasion to dump all its pathogens, and that just seems incredibly foreign fetched to me. That doesn’t seem quite right. But it has been repeated. But I don’t think it’s been confirmed by the WHO, but I’d be very interested to hear what others have got to say to that, because that just doesn’t ring right. That doesn’t seem like standard operating procedure, to me, but at the same time, we’ve not really been in this kind of situation before, where you have this invasion, and you’ve got all these labs in this focus on labs.
Greg: One of the elements of Russian disinformation was that this alleged destruction of samples within Ukraine and within the public health labs was being portrayed as, again, some sort of cover up, and part of some kind of conspiracy theory, when I do think, actually, WHO did give this advice. And I think it makes sense on two levels. On one level if you expect your facility to, at the very least lose power, and maybe even be structurally compromised by bombing or tax, you want to make sure that you’ve kind of cleaned up your facility and it doesn’t pose a risk to those in the community. So the same way, if you’re going away on vacation, right, you’re not gonna leave a bunch of food in your fridge, that you know, it’s gonna spoil and go bad if the power goes out, you typically empty out the perishables from your fridge before you go away so they don’t have a big mess when you when you come back.
I think it’s the same basic principle at these labs that if they’re being evacuated, or they’re shutting down, because it’s too risky to operate, right, they’re just kind of doing good, common sense housekeeping, to make sure there’s not a mess when they come back. And then if there was any kind of attack on these facilities, I agree that the risk of them causing an outbreak is infinitesimal because these are things in vials and freezers, right, that that will keep these things contained. But if these buildings are destroyed, or damaged, and people go in, for, you know, looting or for for shelter, right, you don’t want them accidentally getting, you know, cut on a vial that contains, you know, tetanus or diphtheria, or some other bacteria that could cause an infection. So because the Ukrainians know, this is gonna be a very chaotic situation. I think this just made sense in terms of reducing any any risks that might be leftover in these labs in the event that they are destroyed or damaged or occupied by by Russia. And again, this also, the ability of the Russians to plant you know, fake evidence is a high risk, because we know of other other cases where they’ve tried to, to do that.
But again, this is, efforts to take these public health facilities and distort their purpose and their mission and use them to feed this disinformation narrative that Russia has been perpetrating for quite a while now.
Izabella: One thing that I have heard and I would be interested in your take on this is that there is a not insignificant risk that Russia might even be inclined to use biological weapons itself and then use this disinformation to effectively try and frame the American Ukrainian side, theoretically, to disguise that. Is that a far fetched idea? What would you say?
Greg: I mean, the risk of a false flag is definitely there. I think it’s less likely in the biological context. We’ve seen reports in the media of American, British and other European officials, warning of a possible false flag attack with a chemical agent, either a chemical weapon or toxic industrial chemical that Russia could use as a kind of post hoc justification, or, as escalation for their their invasion of Ukraine. I certainly see that as a possibility. I think the fact that it’s been called out by Western governments, and that it’s been, that the planning or plotting this has been exposed, makes the benefits to Russia for actually trying to pull off some kind of false flag involving chemical biological agent — I think there are big strategic downsides for them to do this. But, you know, unfortunately, as we’ve seen, Russia, decision making has not been very coherent of late. So it’s certainly possible, they would decide this is a good tactic. But I think that there’s a good chance that’ll it’ll be exposed for the fraud it is, if and when it occurs.
Filippa: I guess I would second that, that would that would also be sort of my take on this, the use of biological weapons to sort of frame the American Ukrainian side. It’s a pretty big step to use biological weapons, it would be unprecedented to use biological weapons on a battlefield. And, my sense, like, Greg, is that there’s a much lower chance that they would use biological weapons. Whether or not they might use chemical weapons. I mean, that seems to be where the intelligence agents want us to believe that is what has been pushed by at very high political levels, from a number of sides that there could be this chemical weapon attack, but on the bio side, you know, that would be absolutely unprecedented.
Izabella: Because of COVID, I guess we have this perception that it’s that that a biological attack would be like a domino, it would just you know, you it expands exponentially. But I was told by other, not yourselves, some of the experts that actually to get that sort of chain reaction infection, sort of exponential expansion in a disease, is not as easy as you might think, and therefore, that’s often the clue as to whether a programme is for for malevolent purposes or not — that there are mechanisms in place to try and ensure that that chain reaction occurs. Is that a correct understanding, you know, that to help in spreading the disease, there has to be more than just like leaving a vial somewhere?
Filippa: I think this would completely depend on what your aim is with your with using biological weapons, right. So, in some of the programmes of the past, the aim has been, you know, confined to assassinations. In sometimes it has been to, you know, to be able to threaten to, to make large areas an infectious disease spread over a large area, but one of the most used agents is anthrax. And that’s not an infectious disease, it doesn’t spread, like influenza, for instance, through the air. So it really depends on the particular pathogen that you’re using, and on what your goal is.
Greg: Yeah, that’s exactly right. And, I mean, historically speaking, Russia, and the Soviet Union invested a lot in those kinds of contagious biological weapons like smallpox, and plague, whereas the United States was more concerned about the risk of blowback or the boomerang effect. So the US did not do a lot of research on those kinds of contagious agents and instead stuck with things that would cause disease but would not be transmissible person, to person, which is what a contagious agent would do. So yeah, so there are different pathogens that you know, some are contagious, some are not, and then different biological weapons programmes we’ve seen, historically have had different to give emphasis on whether or not they’re interested in that kind of biological weapon. Again, historically, most countries have not been interested in the ones that spread kind of widely or uncontrollably. The Soviet programme which Russia inherited is one of the major exceptions to that.
Izabella: can you tell us a little bit for those who don’t know about it just give us a little bit more insight into what that programme entailed, and how it was discovered, and, and also some of the disinformation tactics that were used to obscure it?
Greg: The Soviet Union actually had the oldest and largest biological warfare programme in the world that started in the late 1920s, you know, grew throughout WW2 into the Cold War, and then really dramatically grew in the early 1970s. At the same time, they’re signing the Biological Weapons Convention, which is the first international treaty to outlaw an entire class of weapons of mass destruction. The Soviets were laying the groundwork for an expanded biological weapons programme using quasi civilian institutes under a organisation called Biopreparat, which was this very large enterprise that did some dual use research, but also had, you know, large components of it dedicated to developing biological weapons and new and improved delivery systems. The US got a lot of really good intelligence on this programme, in the late 80s, because of some defectors that came out that exposed especially the biopreparat portion of the programme that was parallel to the military programme.
And the programme, the threat reduction programme that has been operating in Ukraine recently, was actually created in the 1990s to dismantle the former Soviet nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, programmes and facilities, and redirect the scientists to work on peaceful research. So the origin of the biothreat reduction programme, that’s now of a focus for the activities in Ukraine actually started off in 1990s, working cooperatively with the Russians and other countries to dismantle this legacy of the Soviet WMD programmes, which was successful to a large degree, but unfortunately, Russia did withhold certain segments of their of their programmes and retain them on both the chemical and biological weapons side.
And when the biothreat reduction programme kind of did what it could do on the WMD dismantlement effort there scope had expanded in the early 2000s, especially after 911 to working in other countries out of Russia, to help them a build up their bio surveillance capabilities for public health purposes, but also to make sure that they’re doing this safely and securely. And making sure that these better public health labs were able to conduct the research and do their diagnostics and store pathogen safely and securely, right in light of the, you know, heightened concerns about about terrorism and bioterrorism in the 2000s.
So the programme that’s operating in Ukraine now is very much focused on public health, biosafety biosecurity, but it does have its origins in this cooperative effort going back to the 1990s, to try and dismantle and destroy the legacy of the Soviet WMD programmes, which were the largest ones awarded ever seen about the chemical and biological side.
Izabella: So is it fair to say because I was struggling myself to find the information, these Ukrainian labs are they components of the old bio preparat infrastructure? Or are they were they sort of new labs that were built post the exposure of Biopreparat?
Greg: None of these labs were part of the Soviet biological weapons programme. These labs are getting assistance from the US under this expanded Biothreat Reduction programme because they’re working in the public health space. And they do not have any relationship to the old Soviet bioweapons programme. And I know there’s been some confusion because this this overall biothreat reduction programme started with a focus on weapons in the 90s, but as that programme successfully reduced that problem rather dramatically, they shifted their focus to this broader mission of biosurveillance, biosafety and biosecurity.
And so that’s why these labs in Ukraine and Georgia, and countries in you know, many other regions as well, are receiving this assistance to deal with the threat of naturally occurring infectious diseases, but also to deal to deal with the risk of bioterrorism.
Izabella: So I think that’s a really important part of the story from my perspective, because it seems to be where the like where the confusion comes. And obviously, the logic here is that when you have programmes of the scale that Russia did, when you tried to just, you know, dismantle them, you can’t just get rid of all those scientists, those scientists have, you know, legacy knowledge. And the concern is like, what do you do that you can’t like, necessarily be sure that they will never work in that field again. So I guess the logic in the repurposing of the scientists was to ensure that they were working on peaceful objectives. And the funding therefore, from the US or the western side, is on the on the basis that if you fund them to do the work you want, then they won’t be funded by more malevolent forces to do bad work. Because often, I think in the conversation right now, the funding path is being used as a, as a sort of “ha ha! Well, look how hard the US are funding this!”, but actually the correct argument is that we should be grateful the US has funding, because this ensures that these facilities are kept in check effectively.
Greg: Well, I think the the funding is definitely being used by Russia to connote some kind of nefarious intent. But, again, the legacy of the department of defence involvement in this is because initially, there was a focus on weapons facilities in Russia, as that programme expanded its scope to deal with broader biosafety, biosecurity issues, it’s still stayed mostly in DoD. Now, their Department of State has a programme, the CDC, the USAID working in other countries and there are a number of European countries that are contributing to these kinds of efforts in Ukraine and elsewhere as well. So this is not just a unilateral US initiative. There’s a whole science cooperation Centre in Ukraine, which has participation from a number of countries in North America and Europe to fund this kind of research and, and biosurveillance work in Ukraine and other countries like Georgia and other former Soviet republics.
Russia obviously singles out the United States as the boogeyman because it serves their purpose. Their conspiracy theory gets a lot harder to stomach, if suddenly there are a dozen countries that all must be secretly financing bioweapons to work in Ukraine. So the Russians have focused on the US as the main culprit here. But the reality is that this work is being done internationally, transparently, and has no connection to bioweapons work whatsoever.
Izabella: And the other I recently interviewed Ken Alibek, who is one of the defectors that you mentioned. And he, he told a fascinating tale about the type of disinformation that is sometimes used to disguise the purpose of some of the pathogens that they were using. He speaks of a specific case where they had to justify why they had smallpox. And he and his colleague came up with a, with a story that if anyone asks, we can say that global warming had contributed to the defrosting of bodies in Siberia, and when they dug them up, the bodies had smallpox. And that’s how the viruses got to his lab. And this is this is how and why they were there. This was, of course, completely invented by by Alibaug and his colleague, and put out to the sort of wider information space, but it also circled back, he said, so hi superiors ended up inadvertently believing the own their own disinformation. And Alibek had to point out that this was disinformation. But I think it’s an excellent example of the history of the disinformation in this space and how even your own side can eventually be confused by the scale of confusion that is generated by these sorts of tales. Are there any other anecdotal stories like this that come to mind?
Greg: So that the Soviet bioweapons programme was covered with layers of deception, secrecy, because it was an illegal programme, or it was in violation of the Biological Weapons Convention. And so the Soviets tried really hard to keep it secret. And so they would develop several “legends” to disguise the purpose of their facilities. So when someone first started working at Vector or Obolensk, which are the two of the major facilities within Biopreparat, they would be told this is a civilian institution and we only do scientific research, and we only do peaceful research. Once they advance in the programme, and they get further in, they’re told, we’re doing defensive work, because we’re worried that that NATO or the Americans have weapons, so we are doing biodefence work. And then someone gets deeper into the programme, they get more senior, they’re told, we think NATO and the Americans have biologic weapons so we’re developing biological weapons to defend ourselves to deter the Americans. And so it’s purely defensive, but we’re developing weapons. And then when people get to the the most senior part of the programme, they’re now told the full secret, which is that the Soviet Union was developing new and improved biological weapons based on genetic engineering and biotechnology to use in the event of a conflict with NATO.
So the Soviets are lying to their own people and their own scientists, and even to their leaders. And one of the struggles that we saw in the 1990s was that even as the Soviet Union and the Russian government was, was saying that they’re going to comply with the violence dominance convention, they’re going to get rid their biological weapons, the military resisting that, and was trying to come up with all these different reasons why they should hold on to it, and continuing to try and deceive the leadership and this is actually one of the reasons why Alibek left, left Russia and defected to the United States, because he realised that he’d been lied to for so many years. And he was told the Americans have a bioweapons programme after 1969. And he could clearly see after having visited our facilities, that was not the case. And so he was very disillusioned and felt betrayed by the Soviet Russian systems that have been lying to him for so long.
So that this kind of this type of decision is kind of baked into the DNA of the Soviet BW programme and the way they look at biological weapons in general. So again, the kind of allegations they’re making about what’s going on Ukraine is par for the course and it’s really not a surprise to anyone who’s been keeping an eye on this programme and Soviet and Russian rhetoric about it for many years.
Filippa: And just to jump in quickly that it won’t have you know, escaped anyone’s noticed the kind of the irony of Russia now saying that Ukraine is hiding a bioweapons programme within its public health institutions, right, which is exactly what biopreparat was doing under Soviet rule for so long. So not only do they have these layers of deceptions, they also recycle their deceptions over time.
Izabella: It’s definitely a type of projection I, I would say. Let’s take some I’ve got some speaker requests.
Audience Question (Pippa): I’m Pippa Malmgren. I’m a former economic adviser to President George W. Bush, and a longtime analyst in the world of geopolitics. So this particular subject is definitely not my specialty. But a couple of quick questions that probably have long answers. But one is, would it not be worth it trying to get back to a space where we all did engage in mutual inspections of labs, like we used to have in the old days to diminish all of this murkiness? And, you know, it’s sort of no skin off our nose, since we have nothing to hide. 2) We’ve had some strange and interesting releases of information in the public domain, which I can see how the Russians could potentially interpret in a particular way. And leaving aside their inclination to engage in disinformation. There’s also a long standing history of conspiracy theory in this part of the world. And I see three particular statements that would be interesting, if you could comment on how do we contend with this, and one was Victoria Newland’s response to Marco Rubio recently, when asked, you know, are there facilities in Ukraine, and she says, yes, and that leads to a whole bunch of speculation, which you have in the main address today, but nonetheless, kind of hangs out there? Number 2, were the Freedom of Information Act requests, one to NIH, and one to the Wellcome Trust, which revealed that, in fact, the US had financed research into COVID, in the Wuhan lab, although NIH doesn’t finance weaponization of such viruses. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, and Welcome’s head kind of implying in his emails, that COVID couldn’t really be from nature, it’s it’s most likely an engineered phenomena. So if you take all these together, you can see how if you’re inclined to conspiracy theory, there’s a lot to chew on there. And I just wonder, how do you respond to those things?
Filippa: Just very briefly, just especially on the the inspection part of this, because there is a long history there. The Biological Weapons Convention is a very old treaty. I mean, it’s nearly 50 years. And one of the sticking points was always verification, how can you go in and check right, because of this, the dual use problems, it’s you can use everything almost for both good or bad, although there are signals. And so at the time when the treaty was agreed, and it was it was realised it was too difficult to come up with some sort of Verification Scheme. And so the treaty was agreed without any kind of Verification Mechanism. So there is no Inspectorate. There are no inspectors, there’s none of that. And that has kind of been haunting the treaty ever since there have been long discussions about this, particularly in the 90s. And there was about a decade of discussions to agree what was called an an additional protocol to the Biological Weapons Convention, part of which would talk about well, how would delineate exactly how we would do verification that everyone was in full compliance? Well, at the end of the day, it was the US that sort of torpedoed those discussions, for reasons of not because there’s anything to hide, but because its pharmaceutical industry didn’t want inspections, its defence industry didn’t want inspections. And so, the US position has been, well, we cannot have verification in the same way that we can in the on the nuclear side with full guarantees. And so it would just create a false sense of security to have verification measures.
And this has been a sticking point for a really long time for the convention. That doesn’t mean that others haven’t tried to get closer towards compliance assessments. Moving away from the idea of verification, as we know, verification on the nuclear side, even on the chemical side, and there have been a number of efforts to kind of come up with compliance assessment measures. And one of these has been, that’s being trialled in the last few years is this idea of peer visits to labs in other countries. So, one of the other labs that has been the target of Russian disinformation is the Lugar lab in Tbilisi in Georgia. And that lab hosted one of these peer visits. It asked member states of the Biological Weapons Convention, to bring its experts to the labs, and they walk through the labs, show them everything.
I was part of that visit. And, you know, we could talk to the people, we could ask for documents, they were trying to be as open as they could, so that by the end of it, we could report back to other member states that we see nothing here that is not consistent with peaceful purposes. And so there have been efforts to be open and transparent. Russia was, of course, also invited to come to this visit, and they have declined, again, and again. And I think that is also this indication, that they’re not serious about trying to find ways of assuring compliance, but but merely trying to be disruptive and unhelpful here.
Just very briefly on the on your second point about, you know, the NIH funding and all of these sorts of things, I think, what’s what’s very clear coming out of the whole COVID and gain of function discussion and origin discussion is that, the oversight of these experiments have not been as open or as transparent as they should have been. And there we we do need some reform, there in terms of how we provide oversight and how we regulate very high risk dangerous experiments.
Greg: Yeah, and unfortunately, what we’ve seen is that, you know, the Russians are planting their disinformation in fertile ground that was sowed by the debate of the origins of COVID-19. And, you know, a lot of countries were making, you know, bad allegations, or making allegations in bad faith about origins of COVID-19, which has had the really unfortunate side effect of politicising biosafety and public health research, which is even more important now than ever, because of the obvious vulnerabilities, we have to pandemics. And at a time when we need more international cooperation to do this kind of research and be better prepared for public health rights, right, that gets more difficult as countries, politicise these issues. And geopolitics starts interfering with what should be peaceful, scientific cooperation amongst countries. I think unfortunately, this disinformation campaign is it’s not just about the immediate effects it’s having on events in Ukraine, but what are going to be the after effects? And how what’s the ripple effect going to be in house, it’s going to make it harder for the US and other countries to work together on solving some of these public health problems.
Izabella: I think pepper raises a really interesting point because I’m very interested in the whole kind of weaponization of whataboutism by Russia, actually, I think this is an excellent example of that. But it makes it a difficult war to fight because we do have like some legacy issues on our own side. And one case that comes to mind is the yellow rain example, which was a situation where I believe the American side accused the Russians of using biological warfare in in Afghanistan and Laos. And then it turned out that this was not correct that actually the samples were, I believe some sort of bee poo, and that’s a bit of a stain on our side of the story. And I guess as far as the public is concerned, the Russians have this capacity to therefore weaponize that as in whataboutist mechanism. So how would you guard against that? And what can we tell people to reassure them with all this context?
Filippa: I think what we’ve seen often actually is how some of these disinformation campaigns have stemmed from other issues, so for example, the disinformation campaign around the Lugar labs that I spoke about just now, kind of ramped up incredibly following the use of the Russian use of Novichok on the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal in the UK. And so there again, they’re you saw this kind of, oh, you’re blaming us for using chemical weapons, but what about all of the US bio weapons that are being developed in labs on our borders type thing?
And you also saw this with the previous disinformation campaigns we’ve already mentioned briefly, you know, this allegation that AIDS was an American bioweapon developed at Fort Detrick. Just the year before that came out there was another disinformation campaign that a lab in Lahore in Pakistan was not actually a University of Maryland lab, researching malaria, but it was actually a CIA funded lab to breed weaponised mosquitoes in both of these two. in 1980s, disinformation campaigns came out of allegations that the Soviet Union was using, chemical weapons at the time, and it came in just after the UN General Assembly had agreed to give the UN Secretary General powers to investigate allegations of chemical and biological weapons.
We’re also seeing similar echoes following the use of chemical weapons in Syria, and particularly in Ghouta, where after that, there have been no international efforts to shore up to strengthen the UN Secretary General’s mechanism, which was agreed back in the 1980s. And, again, you’ve seen Russian efforts to manoeuvre against that or to block those efforts. And in fact, to try to take power away from the UN Secretary General saying no, all of those decisions should be run through the UN Security Council, where of course, Russia has veto power. So there is a lot of this whataboutism or as you framed it weaponization of whataboutism but I think you can see this constant interplay between allegations and disinformation and, you know, the politics and some of the use in this whole chemical and biological weapon space.
Audience Question (Emily): So I just had a question about sort of the repurposing of people with legacy knowledge. I was hoping you guys could address sort of the implications on Fox News and elsewhere that, you know, essentially, this work should have wound down by now because it’s been, you know, 30 something years since the fall of the Soviet Union. Essentially my question is like, how long does it take for a Soviet bioweapon to die? And I’m also wondering, you know, does the DTRA fund gain a function research and should that be sort of reevaluated given all of the misinformation we’re seeing right now?
Greg: Thanks for your question, Emily. So as I said earlier that this programme, that DTRA, now runs started off with a focus on weapons facilities, WMD facilities in primarily in Russia and a handful of other former Soviet republics. But that work kind of wound down because it successfully decommissioned facilities and redirected scientists, and then Russia and under under Putin also became much less interested in having the US do this kind of work within within Russia. So that work wound down at the same time post 911, a much greater concern about terrorism, and about bioterrorism after the anthrax letter attacks. And so, overall, within the Defence Threat Reduction Agency, which is the organisation that has been overseeing this kind of work, the focus shifted away from working with former weapons scientists to how do we help countries, you know, friends and allies improve their public health capacity, and for biosurveillance purposes, and do so safely and securely because if you’re working with certain endemic diseases in certain parts of the world, those can still be dangerous pathogens that could be weaponized, or could be stolen by a terrorist group.
And so if you want if you want to help a country in Ukraine, or in East Africa, or in South Asia, deal with some dangerous pathogens that are endemic, you also want to make sure they’re doing so under safe and secure conditions, and bring them up to kind of international standards in those in those domains. So that’s what this biological Threat Reduction programme has been doing for probably the last 15 years or so has had this much kind of broader focus on biosurveillance, biosafety and biosecurity which have been part of a broader, US government investment in global health security.
And again, DoD is just one part of this Department of State has programmes CDC, USAID have programmes working with different countries to build up their capacity to deal with global health threats and detect them and respond to them as quickly as possible so that they don’t turn into an international outbreak or, or a pandemic. So that’s kind of the broader concept of what this programme has been been operating in. To your specific question about get a function. As far as I know, DoD does not fund that kind of research and part of the reason for that is the current events, there’s a policy requirement from the OSTP in the White House, that any government agency that wants to fund research on potential pandemic pathogens, has to have a policy in place to oversee that research and vetted ahead of time, and DoD has not promulgated that kind of policy. And so therefore, they are not authorised to fund research that could potentially enhance lethality or virulence of any potential pandemic pathogens.
Izabella: Thanks for addressing those questions. Ian, you have a question?
Audience Question (Ian): Yes, my name is Ian Waite. I’m actually a senior at George Mason University. I’m taking my senior seminar on weapons of mass destruction with Dr. Kim, I believe it’s a colleague of Dr. Koblentz. So thank you all for taking the time and shout out to George Mason for being a leader in this field. So my question sort of deals with what you all had talked about earlier earlier, regarding sort of the international system, it seems like there is sort of an appetite for greater international regulation and knowledge on some of these labs that are in existence. So what goes on there? So my question is sort of as we see that coming to fruition, assuming that that does happen, what is the likelihood that states, similarly to what we’ve seen with some nuclear programmes, where they sort of take some of these areas of research and sort of move them outside of the scope of the international community and move them underground? What is the likelihood that we could see something like that happen with these BSL labs? Is it sort of too complicated to move outside of an international system? Or would that be a viable possibility from states that want to keep that outside the scope of international oversight?
Filippa: Thanks for your question. And it’s a good one. I would say, you know, on the bio-side, and to some extent on the other on the other biochem, too, but if you’ve got these labs, one of the ways that they show responsible citizenship is trying to be as open and transparent as possible. They try to signal they try to show everyone that they’re doing reputable work. And ways of doing that is by having international partnerships, doing joint work, a having different, you know, placements, or exchanges of staff, all of these things. So when you see labs, and Greg has already mentioned a couple of these are three of these in Russia that are still closed labs that are legacy labs from the Soviet programme, then that that is a certain signal about what is going on there.
I’m not sure we’d see many labs going underground in that sense, I mean, if they’re legitimate labs, they need to be fairly open, they want to have exchanges, they want to publish in the open literature. They want to have joint projects with others. So my sense is probably not actually that we would, we would see this big underground lab scene developing. Greg, you might have other ideas.
Greg: Thanks for your question. And I hope you’re enjoying the class with Dr. Kim. I mean, just to pick up on what Filippa said, there’s lots of things that labs can do to, you know, be responsible citizens. And there are lots of things that countries can do, as well. So under the Biological Weapons Convention, right, as we’ve said before, there is no verification system, right, there’s no equivalent of the IAEA or OCW. But there are Confidence Building Measures that all the countries have agreed to do voluntarily. And one of those confidence building measures is providing information on all of the BSL4 labs in your country every year, and disclosing the location, the funding, the size that have the activities that it engages in. And this is information that is usually already in the open source, because these are public health labs or academic labs that are operating internationally. But it provides a good check, because if intelligence comes in about a country that it seems to be operating a BSL4 lab, and a country is not declaring it under the Biological Weapons Convention, that would obviously raise red flags. And I think the first step would be, you know, diplomatically that country be approached on a bilateral basis quietly to say, “hey, you know, you have this obligation under the BWC, to declare this lab, maybe you just forgot?”, or, you know or “whoever’s running the lab doesn’t know about this, but you should really do that”. And then maybe they submit it and everything’s fine. Or they say, “oh, no, no, no, this doesn’t lab does not exist, what are you talking about?” Again, that would then increase scrutiny on the lab, and that would become more of a focus for attention and intelligence to make sure that it is to what extent it is a violation of BwC or not. And so, oversight in this space, unfortunately, is very fragmented. And it’s very thin compared to the other domains like chemical and nuclear weapons, but, you can have this mosaic of these kind of Confidence Building Measures, and voluntary peer review and the visits that Filippa already mentioned, as well as intelligence, open source information that can help provide an overall mosaic of confidence and whether or not a lab is legitimate, or if a country is in compliance.
And so that’s what we’re seeing on in the situation of Ukraine, where no other countries have raised questions about Ukraine’s compliance with the BwC. And, in fact, the UN High Representative for Disarmament told the UN Security Council that they have no information about any violations of the Biological Weapons Convention in Ukraine. So again, you have to look at these kinds of — even though our oversight is very spotty in this domain. There are ways that you can build confidence in countries compliance, and and what we’re seeing from Russia is just, you know, not credible accounts of why Ukraine’s not at compliance.
Audience Question (Charlie): Thank you for taking my taking my question, Greg, this is a question that perhaps you can respond a little bit better. I notice that there, there’s probably a lot of people that think that when a lab is operating, they’re only working on one item or one project. Can you speak to the variety of projects or studies that could be done at any one lab? And let’s say in this case, it’s Ukraine. Can you speak to that? Because I think there’s a belief that labs exists to work on only one project at a time. And what you just said a few minutes ago about the DoD not not being allowed to fund particular projects. I think with the Wuhan lab, I think there was a little doubt whether or not the NIH was indirectly funding that. But that also, that brings up the question of whether or not unknown… I’d like the public at least to be a little bit more aware about whether or not in these labs, there’s more than one project or not? Thanks.
Greg: It depends, it depends on the lab right, when you have — we’re talking about public health labs that are — where their mission is diagnostics and detections of infectious diseases they’re gonna have the capability to do that across the spectrum of infectious diseases that they have to worry about based on their local situation. And same thing in terms of in terms of research, labs, and so going to be limited to work in only one specific pathogen, right, that’s just not very cost efficient, they’re probably going to study a family of related bacteria viruses that pose a public health risk to that to that country. And what you’re seeing in terms of the context of the Russian allegations is that most of the things the Russians are complaining about Ukraine doing right, it’s actually in Russia’s interest for the Ukraine to be doing this, because these are diseases endemic in this part of the world. So H1N1 which is an avian influenza is a problem, not just in Ukraine, but in Russia, and in Europe, and elsewhere. So, you know, these kinds of public health initiatives and research, even if it’s done by one lab, or by one country actually have, especially if they publish in the scientific literature, has a much broader global health benefit to it as well.
Audience Question (Charlie): But I guess my question goes a little bit more towards Okay, in a specific lab on any one day, could you have several groups of scientists working on different projects at the same time?
Greg: It depends on on how the lab is equipped and, and set up. You know, people do tend to specialise in certain, you know, areas of microbiology, microbiology, so, you might have a lab that is set up to be specialised for the study of viruses that would not be a good place to go study tetanus or diphtheria or TB, because it won’t have the right kinds of equipment, and the scientists there won’t have the right kind of training. I think what you’re trying to get at is is there civilian research being done on one side of a lab, and then the other side of lab, there’s a military BW programme going on? And because of the dual use nature of this stuff that is a theoretical possibility. But the way that you build confidence in the intent of a country is that will do they provide access to a lab, right, or foreigners allowed in to that lab, and be able to kind of see what’s going on. And in the case of Ukraine that is the case, because they were working closely with scientists in in Europe, and in America, to, you know, to do this research, and do this diagnostics and detection work. And so if you know that you’re going to have foreigners coming into your lab, but you’re not going to be trying to have a secret BW research project over here in the corner and try and hide it from people. Right, that just that that does doesn’t work. And it is not the kind of risk that any reasonable government is going to try and take if they’re trying to hide a top secret bioweapons programme that’s illegal international law. So again, this is not the way that this works, right? That does work if you’re a closed off country where you don’t allow outsiders in and you claim you’re doing only peaceful research, but you don’t actually let anyone check what you’re doing. Right? That’s again, when the red flags go up, and the alarms start going off, and that is you know, what we’ve seen for example, in Russia and a number of their facilities where they don’t allow any kind of access, and they don’t have any transparency to what they do.
Izabella: I think that’s a really interesting and worthwhile point, Greg, because in the whole Wuhan situation, there’s been a sort of supposition that just because US scientists were kind of collaborating with, with, you know, gainer function work and Wuhan, therefore there was a direct incrimniation but what you’re actually saying is that is a pathway to transparency and sort of exporting our own standards to those facilities rather than the other way around. But I see that there is a verified virologist and I’m going to discriminate against the other two people who had been in the queue and we might revert if we still have time.
Audience Question (Virologist). And Hi, Greg. So it was wonderful to listen, you have to long time. Just I’m having question like, when we talk about biowarfare, and we talk about BSL4 labs, and then we talk about BWC. Do we know any kind of any country so far, where they had been working on these biological weapons, and they would have declared it? Because mostly, what I could understand if anybody’s having malintent wouldn’t they be doing it on the pretext of diagnostics and understanding of molecular pathogenesis, so on and so forth. Is there any mechanism to find it?
Filippa: And these are some of the things that we’ve talked about already. How do you find out what labs are doing? How do you basically verify that all countries are in compliance with the Biological Weapons Convention, and some ways of doing that are the Confidence Building Measures, which we mentioned, where each country submits, you know, these information documents about what labs they have in their country, what research projects they’ve got, how much money is going into these projects, who’s paying for them as a way of showing transparency and building trust with others. Another way is to help host visits by other countries in your labs, talk them through your — not just show them your lab — but really talk others other experts from other countries through what your oversight processes are, what your rules and regulations are when it comes to biosafety and biosecurity and how you implement that in practice.
Again, this is to reassure others that you take biorisk management seriously that you’ve got appropriate processes in place in your country for dealing with them, and that you’re implementing them properly. So this all comes down to being as transparent as possible, as a way of building confidence that what others are doing is above board and eventually building trust. So there are a whole range of things that are measures that countries can take to kind of try to build confidence and build trust. But none of that, as we spoke about earlier, has this legal basis. And that is one of the big concerns still around the Biological Weapons Convention.
Audience question (Matthew): I don’t think I necessarily have a question. But I think it just a different way everyone should look at it. So Russia comes out on a UN Security Council meeting claiming all this stuff against us. Right? Okay. US doesn’t have it right. Maybe they don’t. But then Russia or somebody certainly does have something then you create in to do something right. And you wouldn’t just go in front of a UN Security Council sit down and say all this stuff, right. So my thing is, I don’t care who has them but why do you have them? And why? Like, if you just listen to that council meeting and what Russia, the Russian Federation is saying, is just simply crazy, simply crazy in like, it’s Russian propaganda. I think it’s something that at least everybody should consider it. And even if the US doesn’t have it, then maybe Russia snitching on themselves. And what you guys are saying they don’t say what’s going on in their labs, maybe then they have it, and they’re doing it.
Izabella: One takeaway from this conversation, by and large is that the situation on the ground is very complicated. And sometimes when it comes to managing this information, we’re not doing ourselves any favours by overly, perhaps silencing accounts that are trying to bring the sort of Russian perspective out there, because it looks kind of incriminating to do that in the first place. Now, I understand why there is an inclination to do that. But there is blowback in and of itself, and it creates suspicion. So what really is the best strategy for expressing the complexity of the situation and the fact that it isn’t black and white? And yes there are labs, but they’re not there for what you think they’re there for; that their purpose is kind of being distorted? What as professionals in this field, Filippa and Greg, as your final thoughts, what can we do better as perhaps journalists and practitioners in the media space to tell this story?
Greg: Providing the context is important to understand. Why are these kinds of programmes in place in Ukraine? Why is the US supporting them? And the history of Russian and Soviet, allegations that are completely unfounded. And crazy, as Matthew said, and it’s not just about Ukraine and bio stuff, it’s about Syria and chemical weapons. It’s about Alexey Navalny and the shooting down of Malaysian airliner, number 17 — it’s just this whole litany of things that people lose sight of — and they look at what the Russian ambassador is saying at the UN, where apparently it looks he’s sincere. But if you look at this whole legacy of the lies and deception and propaganda that the Kremlin puts out, I think that helps people understand that they can’t take what comes out of the Kremlin seriously, or literally, and this is just another example of that.
Izabella: A final thought from Filippa?
Filippa: Thanks, Izabella. So, I think, you know, learning to tackle disinformation. And all the misinformation is something we need to get better at. It’s clearly something that’s, you know, hit a number of us very quickly, a number of Western countries very quickly, the infodemic is kind of a new word that came up during the pandemic. And so it’s something we need to get better at, I think one of the things we’ve learned so far is it, we shouldn’t try to necessarily engage with the particulars of each of the disinformation narratives that’s being planted, because the idea that you they will just… there will just be another narrative, and you’ll have 15 different versions of something. And at the end, people are just overwhelmed and don’t really care one way or the other. So I think what we have to do in addition to what Greg was saying, of providing context, etc, is also to expose the mechanisms through which disinformation is built and channelled. And, also, I think we need to become more critical, everyone we know. We need to, certainly in the classroom build more critical students, grow new generations of much more critical people who consider what the evidence base is of claims are who consider the agendas of different stakeholders — so it’s about building that awareness in citizens, essentially so that you have your own ways of understanding and the information, you don’t just absorb and accepting information that’s put before you, but you analyse it critically.
So I think there’s a whole range of tools that we need to use to address this information from the role of people, experts like Greg and myself in providing context. But also governments have a role to play in providing information on the different tactics and mechanisms that are used to promulgate disinformation. And individuals themselves also have responsibility to become more critical of what they hear and read. So thanks for that Izabella, and thanks for organising this event.
Izabella: Thank you very much for taking part. I think having engagement at this level is incredibly important. So I appreciate both of you participating in this and for your time and on that note, I’ll just remind everybody that this was a recorded event so the transcript, the audio recording will be posted online so feel to share it and I’m sure Greg and Filippa will happily engage with other people if and when approached.