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expert reaction to claims by the Russian Defence Ministry that ethnic-specific bio-agents might have been developed in Ukraine

The Russian Defence Ministry has claimed that ethnic-specific bio-agents might have been developed in Ukraine. 


Prof Alastair Hay, Professor Emeritus of Environmental Toxicology at the University of Leeds, said:

“Russia has been going on about the labs in Ukraine for some years now. I have seen no evidence to support Russia’s claims.

“Developing the agents Russia alleges Ukraine is working on would be a clear violation of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). The US is actually trying to beef up the convention and make it fit for purpose.  Covid has demonstrated how countries need to work together. The origin of the original Covid strain is still unclear but the evidence of how devastating pandemics are is all too visible. So, it would be highly unusual for the US to be doing what Russia claims.

“That said, the US has been supporting various laboratories in the Ukraine through a post-Cold War programme. As I understand it these labs are generally involved in disease surveillance. It is unclear why the US needs to support this work and why, for example, it is not happening under WHO guidance. Funding, clearly, will be one issue. WHO will not have funds. But US support leaves it open to just the claims Russia is making.

“Russia also has form on biological weapons. In 1991 Boris Yeltsin admitted, after an initial denial, that the KGB had an illegal biological weapons programme. Russia had signed the BWC in 1972 promising to never use or develop biological weapons. But the KGB had a huge programme which was revealed by defectors – I interviewed one before he was taken under the wings of the UK government.

“Chemical and biological weapon use allegations occur in many conflicts and are very difficult to verify. You need on-the- ground access, a robust investigatory protocol, good chain-of- custody procedures, and independent labs willing to do the analyses and stand by the results. Finding those labs can be very difficult as there are political implications when one country appears to be accusing another of using illegal weapons. Sadly, it is mainly government labs which have the analytical capability to investigate allegations.”


Prof Oliver Jones, Head Biosciences and Food Technology at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, said:

“This claim belongs purely in the realm of science fiction!  Humans are just too genetically similar to find something that would affect only certain some people and not others. Modern DNA testing can, at best, only tell you if you ancestry is likely to have come from a specific regions such as Europe or Sub-Saharan Africa not specific countries. You can’t tell which country someone is from let alone their possible ethnicity from DNA so there is no way to make any sort of agent, biological or otherwise, that could affect one ethnic groups and not others. It is just not going to happen”.


Dr Richard Parsons, Senior Lecturer in Biochemical Toxicology at King’s College London, said:

“It is highly unlikely that a weapon that targets certain ethnic groups could be developed. We do have pharmaceutical agents which are more effective in certain ethnic groups due to very small differences in their shape, but these are highly-designed and complex molecules which take years to develop, and even members of the same ethnic group don’t all share these differences.

“Chemical weapons are completely different, they target specific places in the proteins of the nerve cells which are common amongst everyone, otherwise these proteins would not work in them and they would not survive. The places they target are what we called the “active site”, the part of the protein essential for function and thus everyone has them, regardless of ethnicity. This is why they are considered as indiscriminate weapons of mass destruction.

“There is no reason to believe that bioagents would be any different, but it is difficult to tell because the Russian claim does not define what a bioagent is. Is it an antibody which targets the protein and stops it from working? Is it some kind of organism? It is difficult to envisage how such an approach could be sufficiently selective enough to target an ethnic group in Europe in any case.

“Finally, Europeans, no matter where they are on the continent, share much more in common genetically than with other ethnic groups across the world. Therefore, the differences between ethnic groups across both eastern and western Europe are not sufficient to target specific populations.”



Declared interests

Prof Jones: none to declare

No others received.

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