Russia claims US is developing biological weapons in Ukraine
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These concerns follow the repeated and seemingly unsubstantiated assertions of the Russian Foreign Ministry that the US is itself developing biological and chemical materials in Ukraine that could be used as the basis for a weapon. For some analysts — such as former army captain and MP Tobias Ellwood — the allegations represent a “despicable pretext” for Russia to justify its own biological or chemical attack, perhaps by claiming a “stray Ukrainian missile” compromised a US-run research facility. Meanwhile, chemical weapons expert Hamish de Bretton-Gordon told the Scottish Sun that he fears Russia could seize one of the labs and use it as a base to unleash a bioweapon.
According to Colonel de Bretton-Gordon, there is the risk that Russian leader Vladimir Putin could look to release a bioweapon “more lethal than Covid”.
He said: “If you splice Covid with something like Ebola, then you have a massive problem.
“The Russians could use a Ukrainian lab to release a bioweapon.
“It would be ideal — they could blame the US and Ukraine for the release of the pathogen.
“The chance to go into a lab would be gold dust for the Russians.”
For internal medicine specialist and Fox News correspondent Dr Marc Siegel, two potential agents of concern when it comes to biological weapons are Variola major and Variola minor, the viruses that cause smallpox.
The initial symptoms of smallpox include fever and vomiting, followed by mouth ulcers and a skin rash that progresses into fluid-filled blisters that leave scars after they heal.
Thanks to the administration of vaccines, the virus is believed to have been eliminated out in the wild, with the last naturally-occurring case having been diagnosed in 1977 and the World Health Organization having declared smallpox eradicated in 1980.
Prior to this, however, an estimated 15 million cases occurred each year — with around 30 percent proving fatal and mortality rates being the highest among babies.
According to Dr Siegel, smallpox makes an ideal biological weapon agent because it is contagious, easy to spread in an aerosolized form and the immunity once afforded by the smallpox vaccine has long faded.
In the event of a manufactured smallpox outbreak, renewal of the vaccination program would be required, along with isolation of infected individuals.
In an opinion piece for The Hill, Dr Siegal wrote: “Smallpox was first infamously used as a biological weapon back in 1763, when British troops allegedly gave contaminated blankets to Native American Indians in order to cause an epidemic.
“More than half of affected tribes were killed as a result, according to some historical accounts.
“These days, the only remaining smallpox exists at the CDC in Atlanta and at the Russian State Center for Research on Virology and Biotechnology.”
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However, Dr Seigel explained, a greater risk likely comes not from naturally occurring bacteria or viruses but from the fruits of bioengineering.
He said: “There are two areas of greatest worry, the first being that small sequences of DNA are available for purchase and could be fashioned into novel viruses or bacteria working from scratch in a laboratory.
“Perhaps even more potentially problematic is the emergence and perfection of genetic editing tools, especially CRISPR Cas-9.”
CRISPR Cas9 is a tool that enables biologists to make precision cuts on DNA, allowing for genes to be inserted, removed or replaced at a desired point to edit a genome.
According to Dr Seigel, CRISPR Cas-9 has the potential to be used to edit existing viruses — such as, for example, influenza — in order to create new strains capable of resisting antiviral treatment or escaping current vaccines
Such, he explained, “could rifle through a population lacking immunity and kill millions”.
Even if Russia’s recent accusations are not part of a wider military-political gambit, the possibility also exists for a Ukrainian laboratory to be accidentally hit during the ongoing war.
Ukraine is reported to have thousands of research facilities — and while none are believed to handle the world’s most deadly pathogens, two do handle high-risk agents and hundreds conduct research on moderate–risk bacteria and viruses.
Last week, the World Health Organization recommended that Ukrainian biological research labs destroy any pathogens they had in containment to eliminate the risk of “any potential spills” into the local population.
There is a precedent for Russian military actions damaging scientific research infrastructure, with reports of shells having been fired at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, a radioactive waste facility near Kyiv, and the Kharkiv Institute of Physics and Technology, which housed both nuclear material and an experimental reactor.
In fact, the last week has seen contact with the Chernobyl complex lost twice as a result of damage inflicted on the main power lines that supply the nuclear facility.
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