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Illustration by Zura Mchedlishvili.

Does the US Have A Secret Germ Warfare Lab on Russia’s Doorstep?

The inside story of a Kremlin disinformation campaign in Georgia

Feature

Tbilisi, Georgia

It sounded like a spiralling nightmare, with ominous background music to match. Two of Russia’s neighbors, Georgia and Ukraine, had been hit by mysterious disease outbreaks, according to the report on Rossiya 24, killing livestock and destroying lives. It was the summer of 2015 and the channel’s reporter had tracked down the victims, among them a Georgian farmer who’d lost all his pigs. “No vet in Georgia could figure out the cause,” she claimed.

The blame, she said, lay with a string of U.S. government-funded bio-laboratories in the two countries, chief among them a multi-million dollar facility on the outskirts of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. Its work was so tightly under wraps, she reported, that residents had dubbed it “a secret Pentagon station.” The on-screen graphic read: “nest of viruses.”

But Kremlin-controlled Rossiya 24 failed to mention that the bacteria responsible for the spate of swine deaths had been identified and contained — by vets working in conjunction with scientists from what is better known in Georgia as the “Lugar Lab.”

Welcome to one of the more obscure frontlines in Russia’s information war with the West.

The American and Georgian governments say the lab’s primary mission is to detect and tackle disease outbreaks. But the Kremlin refuses to accept that the U.S. government has spent $350 million of taxpayers’ money to build a research center on Russia’s doorstep simply to deal with public health hazards.

Ever since it opened seven years ago, it has been under attack from Russian government officials and the Kremlin’s network of supportive media outlets. It is a microcosm of Moscow’s wider disinformation efforts, say those tracking Russian information campaigns — using “black propaganda” about the lab to spread fear and divide public opinion in pro-Western Georgia, while also targeting the United States. The charge sheet keeps changing, but the Kremlin’s core accusation is that the U.S. military is doing biological weapons research on its border.

This information frontline has been heating up once more, as the Kremlin has pushed back at accusations it used a chemical weapon to try to kill a former Russian double agent in the U.K. Just last week, in a press briefing dominated by the case, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova singled out the Lugar Lab by name, saying that the presence of a Pentagon-financed laboratory “at the borders of Russia causes particular concern for us.”

It is the latest example of an old pattern, according to Sophie Gelava of the Tbilisi-based Media Development Foundation (MDF), which monitors Russian statements about the lab. The Kremlin has been “actively spreading black propaganda against the laboratory since the day it was established,” she says.

Allegations about the lab are disseminated through a wide variety of media outlets, in the Russian, English and Georgian languages, feeding suspicion and distrust as they are picked up and recycled through social media.

The Kremlin-controlled news agency Sputnik portrayed it as part of a U.S. effort to encircle the country with bio-weapons facilities. Earlier this year, the pro-Russian New Eastern Outlook site claimed the lab was a “front” for testing new viruses and bacteria on the Georgian people. The operation would have “impressed” the Nazi concentration camp doctor Joseph Mengele, the writer added. A pro-Kremlin Georgian language site recently repeated an old charge that the lab was linked to local outbreaks measles and other diseases.

So we asked if we could see the lab for ourselves.

Its official name is the Richard G. Lugar Center for Public Health Research, and it is housed in a specially-built complex just off the main road to Tbilisi’s international airport. It is equipped to what’s known as Bio-Safety Level III (BSL III) standards, which means it can handle all but a handful of the most dangerous known microbes, including anthrax and the bacteria that causes bubonic plague.

Our credentials were checked before our visit, and we were searched when we entered the complex — though the security precautions hardly seemed out of the ordinary.

As part of our tour, we were shown what is regarded as the lab’s most sensitive area, its store of “Especially Dangerous Pathogens” (EDPs), a high-security repository of lethal bacteria and viruses collected by scientists. It is known as the “pathogen museum.” Even though many of these EDP samples were originally procured in Soviet times, some Russian media reports have speculated that this store is the basis of a bio-weapons arsenal.

On one Russian point there is no dispute. The Tbilisi laboratory, as well as an associated network of smaller monitoring facilities across the country, was funded by the U.S. Department of Defense. It still contributes to the running costs, and although the majority of the staff are Georgian, a small number of American scientists employed by the Pentagon’s medical research arm still work there, which the Kremlin has called “disturbing.”

But the Lugar Lab network has its origins in an American initiative aimed at neutralizing the potential threat from the leftovers of the Soviet-era Kremlin’s biological and chemical weapons research. (Former U.S. Senator Richard Lugar played a lead role in creating the program, and he opened the lab.) The anthrax scare that followed the 9/11 attacks was another later driver, spurring the U.S. government into extra spending on early warning and detection efforts for biological threats.

The so-called Cooperative Biological Engagement Program or CBEP is run by the Pentagon’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency. And one of its initial priorities for the Lugar Lab, according to both current and former staff, was to use it to secure viral and bacterial EDPs left behind by Soviet scientists.

Many of these samples — now inside the lab’s “pathogen museum” — were previously kept in an old, Soviet-era research institute in the middle of Tbilisi, posing a significant potential risk to the public. Far safer, say Lugar Lab staff, to store these and other pathogen samples in a purpose-built facility on the outskirts of the city. But Russian media reports alleging that the U.S.-funded lab is creating biological weapons don’t mention this back story.

And according to its director, Paata Imnadze, the Lugar Lab is in effect continuing a public service previously carried out by the Soviet-era institute — detecting and tackling disease outbreaks.

“Monitoring of infectious diseases has been done in Georgia since 1937,” said Imnadze. “Here we do exactly the same work that we did in the old center, except in a much safer environment.”

Georgia faces a wide range of disease threats, he explained as he gave us a tour of the lab, including brucellosis — a serious threat to livestock — as well as cases of anthrax and Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever.

What’s more, he says, Georgia is far from alone among former Soviet states in having this kind of laboratory. Russia itself has its own similarly-equipped facilities, and at least one declared lab with the top BSL-IV safety rating, which can handle the deadliest microbes, such as Ebola.

With his salt-and-pepper hair and moustache, Imnadze is a familiar face on local television. For many years, he has been the Georgian government’s designated speaker on viral infections and other health issues, urging people to get flu shots, or to go easy on their antibiotic use. And he scoffs at charges that he is, in effect, overseeing a secret germ-warfare center, calling them “a product of ignorance, and the workings of the security services of a certain country.”

Since 2013, the Lugar Lab has been run by Georgia’s National Center for Disease Control (NCDC), the equivalent of America’s Centers for Disease Control (CDC). And the U.S. presence has dropped significantly in recent years, according to staff there.

There are currently nine Americans working in the lab, employed by the Pentagon-run, Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR). In an interview, the head of the team, Colonel Paul Kwon, said their research has focused on areas such as sexually-transmitted diseases, naturally-occurring illnesses and emerging patterns of microbial drug resistance.

Kwon, who is a physician himself, said his agency is involved simply because it has much greater capacity and “reach” than its civilian counterpart, the CDC. The Lugar Lab is one of several similar “global partnerships,” he said, citing other examples of U.S.-funded disease research centers in Kenya and Thailand.

In a follow up statement, Kristin Roberts, a spokeswoman for the U.S. embassy in Georgia, said “the work of the Army scientists primarily aims to protect U.S. soldiers from infectious disease as they exercise and train,” adding that “there is a broader applicability of their research for the greater good of society.”

Nonetheless, some insiders say they are not surprised the Russians have complained so much about the Lugar Lab. “We would do the same if they built a facility like this in Cuba or on the border in Mexico,” said an American source who has previously worked in the lab, but did not want to be identified in case it compromised work relationships.

Rossiya 24 reporter tracks the “huge chain of laboratories” set up by the U.S. in the former Soviet space.

In effect, the source said, the lab and its network give the U.S. a strategically-placed early warning system for disease outbreaks, providing “an outer ring of security,” far from American shores. But for Georgia’s requirements, the source added, the Lugar Lab “was overbuilt.”

However, he dismissed Russian allegations that it is a front for conducting covert biological weapons work. “I’ve been in every room in that lab, and I don’t believe there is any secret research going on there.” It’s also a very complex process creating viable biological weapons, he added. “Just having a store of pathogens is not enough.”

Imnadze has a theory that the Russians can’t abide having an American-funded success story on their doorstep, which also gives Western-leaning Georgia greater distance from Moscow’s embrace. “In the past, we had to ask them [Russians] for help when we didn’t know what kind of disease we were dealing with,” said Imnadze. “Now people from all over come to us.”

Our visit was far from the first time the lab has tried to address Russian-inspired allegations about its work. Several years ago, they opened their doors to a group of doubting Russian journalists. “If this was a secret weapon facility, would we be so open to everyone?,” asked Imnadze. Perhaps most striking of all, he said “we’ve had Russian scientists working here too.”

Requests for comment were sent to both the Russian journalists and a scientist who had worked in the lab, but no one responded.

The Americans have reached out to Russia too, through diplomatic channels, to try to explain the lab’s work, according to Debra Yourick, a WRAIR spokeswoman in the U.S.

But it is very hard to respond “meaningfully,” she said, adding that if the American or Georgian governments do react to what she called some of the “nonsense in the media, you actually give it some validity.” And the rumors keep coming.

Earlier this year, Moscow tagged the lab to the spread of the so-called “stink-bug,” a pest that has wreaked havoc on crops in Georgia and the surrounding region. “We cannot exclude the possibility..that it [the stink-bug] could be a biological weapon,” said Yuliya Melano, an official with the veterinary division of Russia’s agriculture ministry.

Two years ago, a Russian official claimed that the Americans could use the lab to infect mosquitoes with Zika virus and release them over the border into Russia. It has also been blamed for outbreaks of human and animal flu in the breakaway Georgian territory of South Ossetia — currently under de facto Russian occupation.

An eccentric American living in Tbilisi has helped feed the rumor mill, claiming that the lab is being used to test killer viruses and bacteria on humans. “Georgians are being used as white rats,” declared Jeffrey Silverman in an interview with Patrioti TV, a Georgian news outfit that advocates close ties with Russia. Though he has been widely discredited as a conspiracist, he has regularly been interviewed by the Russian media — including in this 2015 Rossiya 24 report — and his claims are often picked up and recycled by alternative news sites.

The MDF monitoring team has drawn up a diagram of the recurrent themes in Kremlin statements and Russian media reports. They include stories predicting confrontation between Moscow and Tbilisi, and even claims that the lab was used to make chemical weapons deployed in Syria.

Even if the claims shift, the strategy is the same according to Sophie Gelava, depicting the lab as secretive and dangerous “so often that people start believing it.”

Now the MDF team has a growing list of examples of Russian officials or media outlets trying to use the Lugar Lab as a diversionary issue in the public relations battle over the poisoning of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.

“US laboratory for biological weapons found in Georgia,” read one recent Russian headline — as if it had never been covered in the Russian media before. Perhaps the “Novichok” agent used in the March 4 attack in Salisbury was stored in “Georgia and Ukraine” suggested Russian Senator Franz Klintsevich, in a statement reported by the Kremlin’s global RT network.

There are indications too that Russian government denunciations of the lab come from a standard set of talking points. As Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova read out her statement on the lab last week, her language bore striking similarities with remarks she made about it last year, and again she added the detail that it is near “Alekseevka” village.

“A fair question comes up about the true aims for the military-biological activity of the United States of America,” said Zakharova during an April 12 press briefing dominated by the Skripal poisoning.

“The intensity of these stories [about the lab] and the channels of distribution indicate that all of this is orchestrated directly from the Kremlin,” says Nodar Tangiashvili of East-West Management Institute, a U.S. non-profit organization which helps fund the MDF monitors.

Yet those associated with the lab doubt the Russians really believe all their own allegations, because they are sure their intelligence services have their own picture of what really goes on inside. “They must have had their own agents in there at some point,” said the American source.

The man whose name is on the door takes a similar line. “Both civilian and military United States personnel have conducted research at the lab for many years,” said former U.S. Senator Richard Lugar in an email “and these research activities were well known to the Russians.”

What is more, he added, Russia has “gained some benefit in knowing that the lab in Tbilisi is on the constant look-out for substances that threaten populations of any country in the area.”

Despite the caustic statements and reports, the Kremlin has not put any pressure on the Georgian or U.S. governments to close it down.

The lab seems to serve as a useful tool Moscow can brandish when needed. When the Kremlin brought up the Lugar Lab last year, it came after a confrontation with the U.S. government, which had accused Russia of failing to comply with international arms control commitments.

And since the Skripal poisoning affair, Russia is now under even more pressure over allegations that it has been hiding a secret chemical and biological warfare program of its own.

But while the U.S military has been keen to reduce its involvement and “footprint”, it does not want to pull back entirely, according to the American source, and thereby risk losing its early warning capability for disease outbreaks.

So be prepared for this arcane information battle over the Lugar Lab to keep on going. When Russian claims that it’s a germ warfare facility came up again, the American source laughed.

“Did they show you the basement?” he smiled, before answering the question.

“There is no basement.”