A Russian friend who passionately believes every word that Putin and RT tell him wrote to inform me that the invasion of Ukraine was an unavoidable response to Western aggression. Among the assertions he made was that there are "secret American biolabs" in Ukraine preparing weapons to be used against Russia.
As it happens, I know something about this subject. Let’s unpack that claim.
The history of biological warfare is a long and inglorious one. I’ll skip most of it and start with Unit 731, established by the Imperial Japanese Army in 1935 in occupied China. This was a covert biological warfare research unit organized and run by General Shiro Ishi which performed experiments on large numbers of unwilling human beings.
A full account of the horrors of Unit 731 would turn your stomach. Here’s a relatively mild one. Chinese captives were staked out in open fields and exposed to flea bombs at various distances. The fleas in those bombs were infected with the bubonic plague. After exposure, the subjects were taken back to the barracks/hospital and the progress of the disease monitored. An equal number of uninfected people were maintained as controls and also carefully monitored. After a set period of time, everyone—the infected and uninfected alike—were killed and new subjects brought in for the next round of testing.
Everybody knows about Dr. Joseph Mengele and that the scientific community rejected use of the data he collected. But his experiments were only marginally scientific and his findings were worthless. Dr. Ishi’s scientific technique was impeccable, and the result was the only substantive body of information in existence on the medical effects of biological warfare. Russia, the United States, and China all cut deals to get their hands on it. Ishi was never prosecuted for his war crimes. He died in Tokyo a respected and prosperous man.
So the first thing you must know is: Nobody’s hands are clean.
Now consider the differences between a biological weapons facility and a biological research lab. They are chiefly one of intent. I heard a presentation at a Chemical and Biological Weapons conference where the manufacturer of an anthrax vaccine explained that there were so many—I forget the number; let’s pretend it’s 32—steps to creating the vaccine and that the last one was killing the living anthrax bacteria.
This means you can present the contents of any biological research facility as proofs of insidious intent. The centrifuges, gas chromatographs, incubators, autoclaves, glove boxes, and moon suits can all look very scary if your only exposure to microbiology is television dramas.
That’s the second thing to know: This is an easy false claim to make.
For purposes of warfare, biological weapons have the virtue of being terrifying, but that’s about it. All the world considers their use a war crime. They also have the potential of backfiring on their users. Bacteria and viruses are no respecters of borders. Consider the ease with which the Covid-19 coronavirus roams from continent to continent.
Back when I was a lowly Clerk-Typist 2 in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Department of Health Bureau of Laboratories, I often heard speculation that smallpox—so far as is known, the virus that causes it exists only in two laboratories, one each in the United States and Russia—would make an excellent weapon. It’s fast, terrifying, debilitating, and highly contagious, and the aggressor nation could easily inoculate its own population against it. But as the last few years have shown, it’s not easy to convince everyone to take the vaccine. Also, when the disease spreads to nations not involved in the conflict, whoever was responsible will find themselves extremely unpopular.
War is ugly. Spreading disease is easy. Treaties are often broken. Yet in the post-WWII era, with the exception of the Rajneeshee salmonella poisonings in 1984 Oregon, biowarfare and bioterrorism seem to be nonexistent.
By contrast, chemical weapons, also banned by international treaties, have been employed in various wars, military actions, and terrorist and anti-terrorist events in Yemen, Rhodesia, Angola, Thailand, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Syria, Tokyo, Russia, and elsewhere.
This is the third thing to know: Currently, biowarfare is nobody’s first choice.
There are four biosafety levels for biological laboratories from BSL-1 labs, which handle low risk microbes with little chance of infecting a healthy adult to BSL-4 labs, which work with highly dangerous microbes that are frequently fatal, and have no treatment or vaccine, such as the Ebola and Marburg viruses. (There are only a handful of BSL-4 laboratories in the world.) Each level has higher degree of security than the one before.
Any facility working to research or create bioweapons would have to be at least BSL-3, with special containment and air-handling requirements, and such laboratories take their security very seriously indeed. I know, because I once tried to gain access to one using deceit and human engineering and didn’t come close to succeeding. (It was an unannounced test arranged by my wife, Marianne Porter, who was in charge of laboratory evaluation. She wanted somebody who obviously didn’t belong there yet looked vaguely familiar. I fit the bill.) Most of the security, however, is directed inward, to confine the pathogens the laboratory works with: HEPA air filtration, negative air pressure, airlock-style doors, and on and on.
Even at that, accidents happen. The most notable of these was the accidental release of anthrax from a Soviet military research and/or bioweapon production facility in Sverdlovsk (now Ekaterinburg) in the Ural Mountains in 1979. The event killed at least 66 people and possibly a great many more.
This was a black eye for the Soviet Union which, like China and the US, was a signatory of the Biological Weapons Convention banning the development, production, acquisition, transfer, stockpiling and use of biological weapons, as is Russia today. All three nations will tell you that their research into bioweaponry is for defensive purposes only and this may well be true. Only those directly involved and possibly certain intelligence organizations know for sure.
Which is my fourth point: No country wants to be exposed as owning or using bioweaponry.
The immanence of war has a way of reshaping industry. At the beginning of World War Two, Stalin moved the USSR’s heavy industry deep into the Urals, where the factories building tanks and other armaments that helped win the war were out of Hitler’s reach. Not long after the war, China’s government, fearful that General MacArthur might have plans to invade their country, moved much of their manufacturing deep inland, away from the seacoast where it might easily be seized or destroyed.
My fifth and final point should be self-evident: Warlike nations do not put their weapons manufacturing facilities where their enemies might easily seize them.
Yet my Russian friend would have me believe that there are thirty—he was emphatic about that number—secret bioweapon laboratories scattered throughout Ukraine. This is an absurd claim and doubly so when one considers that American intelligence, no less than Putin himself, originally expected the Russian military to overrun Ukraine in a matter of days.
The secret biolabs charge is a highly emotional one, but it falls apart on examination.
Note: I resigned my position as honorary president of the International Union of Writers when Russia invaded Ukraine. Since then, I have several times requested that they take down my name from their website. Last week, I informed the organization’s officers that if my name was not taken down, the above essay might be received as an official statement of the IUW.
My name is still there.