Bioweapons Disease Detection Labs in Ukraine?


A Closer Look at Recent Russian Claims

By Zygmunt F. Dembek, Senior Scientist, Center for Disaster and Humanitarian Assistance Medicine, US.

Russia has claimed that the Ukraine, working together with the US, has created and maintains biological weapons laboratories scattered throughout the nation.  This allegation has garnered publicity outside of Russian media sources.  This article provides information as to what has been done to investigate these accusations by Russia, and what types of biological laboratory programs have been established by the United States and international partners in the former Soviet Union countries.

Ukrainian Aggression?

Following its invasion of Ukraine, in March of 2022 Russia claimed that Ukraine, sponsored by the United States (US), had created a series of ‘bioweapons laboratories’ around the country that could be used against Russia. If accurate, such rationale could help to bolster Russia’s justification for attacking Ukraine.  But what about these accusations?  Do they have any merit?

Background – The Biological Weapons Convention

The United Nations (UN) Office for Disarmament Affairs holds regularly scheduled meetings for the international Biological Weapons Convention (BWC).  This Convention seeks to prevent the development, production, acquisition, transfer, stockpiling and use of biological and toxin weapons.  There are currently 184 States Parties and 4 Signatory States to the BWC, which entered into force in 1975.  All States Parties to the BWC (including Russia, Ukraine and the US) have agreed to “never in any circumstances to develop, produce, stockpile or otherwise acquire or retain”:

  • Microbial or other biological agents, or toxins whatever their origin or method of production, of types and in quantities that have no justification for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes;
  • Weapons, equipment or means of delivery designed to use such agents or toxins for hostile purposes or in armed conflict.

Special UN Session Held to Investigate Russia’s Claims

A special session of the BWC was held in Geneva in September 2022 at Russia’s request.  Russia made multiple accusations of biological weapons (BW) use by the US and the Ukraine in violation of the BWC.  During eight closed-door meetings, 89 BWC states-parties and a BWC signatory state heard and deliberated on all materials presented from Russia, the Ukraine, and the US, the countries implicated in this international dispute.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, participants did not reach a resolution by the conclusion of these meetings.

Addressing allegations related to US funding of Ukrainian biological research facilities, the US presented documentation that the US Defense Department (DoD) and the Ukrainian Health Ministry (MoH) had entered into a cooperative agreement to prevent the proliferation of technology, pathogens, and expertise that could be used in the development of BW. Such cooperation is encouraged under Article X of the BWC. Russia had been an initial member of the US Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) programs and had actively participated in similar collaborative biological research and biosafety work between the US and Russia for many years until terminated by Russia in 2014.

Russia also questioned three US-issued patents for technology related to the weaponization of toxins, including whether the patents violated US obligations under the BWC. The US responded that “the decision to issue a patent does not violate the obligations” of the US under the BWC… on the grounds that “patent rights do not confer a legal right or authorization to produce an invention” but rather “simply serve to give the patent owner the legal means to exclude other parties from taking certain actions with respect to that invention.”  It was also observed that multiple state participants in the BWC hold similar patents, including Russia.

Avian Influenza

Russia also accused the US of funding animal surveillance projects in Ukraine, in order to “weaponize” migratory birds. This was in reference to research projects that were established globally to collect data on avian diseases in migratory birds.  This supports “a long-term international effort encouraged by the World Health Organization (WHO) to understand the spread of avian influenza around the world.”

Highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) A virus subtypes H5N1, H5N2, H5N8, and other viruses have been a growing global concern for some time, since these viruses have the ability to be transmitted between wildfowl and domestics birds, and then directly to humans.  The HPAI H5N1 virus first emerged in China in 1996, and large HPAI outbreaks in domestic poultry have more recently required the culling of hundreds of thousands of domestic birds in Europe in 2020.  Global disease prevention and surveillance efforts targeting H5N1 influenza virus have long been established by the World Health Organization (WHO), the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and many other public health organizations.  Russia’s claim that the US is seeking to “weaponize” migratory birds is simply untrue.

Ukraine’s Labs

As do many dozens of nations, Ukraine has laboratories holding biological pathogen collections. The WHO reportedly urged Ukrainian authorities to destroy research samples of disease pathogens to avoid accidental release should these facilities become damaged in the war. The UN Security Council stated it is unaware of any biological weapons program in Ukraine. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield noted: “Ukraine does not have a biological weapons program, and there are no Ukrainian biological weapons laboratories supported by the United States…Ukraine owns and operates its own public health laboratory infrastructure. These facilities make it possible to detect and diagnose diseases like COVID-19. The United States has assisted Ukraine to do this safely and securely.” 

Military Use?

Unsurprisingly, both Russia and China have previously claimed that US biological security cooperation programs globally, and those in Former Soviet Union (FSU) countries, including the Ukraine, were military in nature. Multiple US government agencies have been involved in this CTR program work, including the US Department of State (DoS) and the CDC, working with Ukraine to meet international biosafety and global health security standards. The US Department of Defense (DoD) CTR program has partnered with countries globally to destroy or secure high-priority biological pathogens (i.e., “Select Agents”) at their source and to help develop each nation’s capacity to detect, diagnose, and report disease outbreaks.  It is a fact that the causative biological agents of diseases of concern such as anthrax and tularemia are widespread throughout FSU nations.  And that a more robust national disease detection and diagnostic system can help a nation to more quickly identify and respond to disease outbreaks.

The DoD’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) strongly denies any weapons-related aspects for this work. Importantly, the US Congress oversees implementation of these programs. CTR’s biological engagement began as a program focused on dismantling the multi-nation biological weapons complex inherited from and scattered throughout the FSU countries.  For an insight into the massive scope of the biological weapons program developed by the former Soviet Union during the 20th century, there is perhaps no better primer on this topic than Dr. Ken Alibek’s first-hand account “Biohazard: The Chilling True Story of the Largest Covert Biological Weapons Program in the World -Told From Inside by the Man Who Ran It” (Random House, 1999).

Dismantling Doomsday

Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine and other FSU nations have partnered with the US and other international agencies in dismantling their inherited Soviet BW facilities and securing pathogen collections and laboratories. These facilities were abandoned by the Russian military when the former FSU republics became independent.  Due to their covert nature, many local national governments were unaware of their existence or the dangers they contained.  Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, these facilities lacked proper security and safety, had lost expert staff, and were often in disrepair.

Since dangerous pathogen collections from these former FSU facilities were being dispersed, the US initiated assistance to these nations during the 1990’s.  The current CTR budget in the DoD for biological threat reduction (BTR) “seeks to facilitate detection and reporting of diseases caused by especially dangerous pathogens (EDPs), including zoonotic diseases, which could affect the armed forces of the United States or its allies and partners.”

Peaceful Modernization

The current program is focused on improving biosafety and security (BS&S) at laboratories housing pathogen collections necessary for public health programs, including equipment upgrades and training for disease detection, diagnosis, and reporting enhancements (i.e., biosurveillance). The BTR program has built secure Central Reference Laboratories (CRL) for pathogen collections in Azerbaijan, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan, and completed upgrades at 39 “Secured Labs” in Armenia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine.  This program provided all of these nations vital COVID-19 technical and material assistance during the pandemic, including biosafety equipment, diagnostic supplies, and subject matter expertise.


In conclusion, not only does the Ukraine and other FSU countries not have “bioweapons laboratories”, they have worked very hard with the US and other partner nations and international organizations to rid themselves of the BW legacy from their former participation in the Soviet Union, and to build a public health capacity in each nation that did not previously exist.  These capacities built and strengthened by the US CTR and BTR programs were immediately used during the COVID-19 pandemic, and will continue to be used in each nation to strengthen and improve their public health infrastructure. 

About the Author:

COL, USAR (Ret) Zygmunt F Dembek, PhD, MS, MPH, LHD (Hon) is an Associate Professor in the Department of Military and Emergency Medicine at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences and a Senior Scientist at Battelle Memorial Institute. He is an internationally recognized thought leader in biodefense and epidemiology, former Chief of Biodefense Epidemiology and Education and Training Programs at the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Disease (USAMRIID), and has conducted clinical, epidemiology and infectious disease training in Africa, Asia, Europe, the Caucasus, and North and Latin America.  He was the Senior Editor for the peer-reviewed Textbook of Military Medicine, Medical Aspects of Biological Warfare, and Lead Editor for USAMRIID’s Medical Management of Biological Casualties Handbook (Blue Book), 7th Edition.

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