30 September 2023
Fact checkMisleading

Misleading: WHO asked Ukraine to destroy pathogens in public health labs, not bioweapons

WHO routinely collaborates with member states on the safety and security of labs. Bioweapon allegations have been debunked by scientists.

Hong Kong and mainland Chinese news organizations recently reported about the World Health Organization’s advice for Ukraine to destroy pathogens in laboratories (for example, here, here, here, and here) and implied it is linked to Russia’s allegation that U.S. funded laboratories in Ukraine are creating bioweapons.

Several posts in Chinese on Twitter (such as this, this, this and this) also mentioned WHO’s recommendation and indicated that the existence of dangerous biolabs in the country has been confirmed, alluding to the bioweapon allegation.

These reports and tweets, however, are misleading.

They are mostly based on Reuters’ exclusive news article published on March 11 about WHO’s collaboration with Ukrainian public health labs and its advice to prevent accidental or deliberate release of high-threat pathogens amid the ongoing war.

However, there is nothing unusual about such requests. WHO routinely assists member states “in improving their public health capacities, including by facilitating improved safety and security of laboratories holding samples of pathogens of public health concern,” said WHO’s communications officer in an email to Annie Lab.

Olga Pettersson, a genome sequencing professional from Uppsala University in Sweden, who debunked the Russian bioweapon allegation (English translation by Ilya Lozovsky here) on March 12, told Annie Lab that biolabs could be “doing any kind of biological research — molecular biology, taxonomy, genome analysis, plant breeding, beer quality control” and so forth.

The presence of these labs in any given country “does not imply any military research,” she said.

Russian accusation discredited

Pettersson and other scientists looked into the documents allegedly obtained by the Russian Ministry of Defense that supposedly show evidence of a biological weapons program in Ukraine.

Their investigation revealed that the “leaked” documents describe mundane, standard procedures at any microbiological laboratory in the country.

None of the microbes studied at those labs, which are listed in the documents, turned out to be deadly bioweapon agents.

“No cholera, plague, tularemia, typhus, anthrax, legionnaires’ disease, syphilis, etc,” reads the translation of her explanation.

“These labs are generally no higher than BSL3,” Pettersson told Annie Lab. BSL3 refers to Biosafety Level 3.

“The bacteria present in the “leaked” documents are all of BSL1 and 2. Pathogens that could possess serious danger to human health (e.g. SARS-Cov2 virus) are designated Biosafety Level 3. Lethal pathogens, e.g. cholera, plague, ebola, etc. are designated BSL4,” Petterson explained.

“Presence of BSL3 and 4 labs in a country does not imply development of bioweapons, as they are routinely involved in disease diagnostics, vaccine development, etc.”

Most, if not all, developed countries have labs to research high-threat microbes.

Even the universities in Hong Kong run their own BSL-3 laboratories that are “focused on emerging infectious diseases including avian, other animal and human viruses such as influenza virus, coronaviruses and other viruses,” according to an official document published by the Legislative Council.

A fact-checking article on similar Russian claims by Poynter says it takes more than having a lab to create bioweapons.

No evidence of unusual activities

WHO said the data provided by public health laboratories in member states are necessary to identify and monitor illnesses and other health concerns and to make them safe and secure.

In 2020, for example, WHO assisted Ukraine’s laboratories in improving their testing capacity and protecting their personnel at the height of the pandemic.

“WHO also promotes biosecurity at laboratories, e.g. prevention of accidental or deliberate release of pathogens. As part of this work, WHO has strongly recommended to the Ministry of Health in Ukraine and other responsible bodies to destroy high-threat pathogens to prevent any potential spills,” the communications officer told Annie Lab.

WHO’s spokesperson Tarik Jašarević also said in a press conference on March 11 that providing member-states guidance on laboratory safety has always been part of their mandate.

The Reuters report came days after Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said Russia’s military forces have obtained evidence of Ukraine developing bioweapon components with the support of the United States, which has been debunked by Pettersson.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian demanded the U.S. to disclose details of its biolabs in Ukraine, while state-owned media organization Xinhua reported that it identified the locations of the said labs.

The U.S. and Ukraine both dismissed the accusation.

Izumi Nakamitsu, the head of the U.N. Office for Disarmament Affairs, said in the Security Council meeting on March 11 that the U.N. is not aware of any biological weapons programs in Ukraine.

Ukraine is a state party to the Biological Weapons Convention that prohibits developing and producing biological weapons.

In an international workshop between biosecurity experts in 2011, an overview of high-containment laboratories in Ukraine, written by two local scientists, reported that the laboratories were working on different tasks, including diagnostic investigations, scientific research and “preventing the spread of technologies, pathogens, and knowledge that can be used in the development of biological weapons.”