Moscow’s claims that there are bioweapons labs in Ukraine under Pentagon control are an ’embarrassment to Russia’, says a scientist who was part of a group of experts who debunked the theory of the conspiracy.
Olga Pettersson, a genome sequencing expert based in Sweden, told Newsweek she was stunned by what the Russian Foreign Ministry presented as evidence that Ukraine was developing a bioweapons program in cahoots with the United States.
She was part of a group of 10 scientists who publicly accused the Russian government of lying. Some members of the group are in Russia and have risked their safety to tell the truth.
“If they had had hard proof, they wouldn’t have put those particular documents into open source because those documents prove it to be true,” she said.
The documents in question were produced by the Russian Ministry of Defense, showing the orders of the Ukrainian Minister of Health on the second day of the Russian invasion.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov told Tass on March 6 that documents showed that Ukrainian and American scientists had tried to “cover up” a military-biological program involving the plague, anthrax, tularemia and cholera.
He said the documents showed that laboratories in the cities of Kharkiv and Poltava had been ordered to destroy collections of bacterial pathogens used for research.
This was repeated on March 7 by Lieutenant General Igor Kirillov, head of the Russian army’s radiological, chemical and biological protection force, who showed the documents during a briefing during which he questioned the haste of sample disposal.
In another briefing, Kirillov said documents from public health projects showed there was a plot to send infected animals to Russia. He also claimed that researchers had sent blood samples to Australian labs to study “Slavic DNA”, which showed that a bioweapon was intended to infect only ethnic Russians.
The claims were amplified on the world stage by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his UN ambassador Vasily Nebenzya, but dismissed as “absolutely absurd” by the United Nations Security Council when it s met on March 11 at the request of Moscow.
“When I read what Lavrov was saying it was so stupid and as a professional I just couldn’t pass it up,” Pettersson said.
As The interception Eugene Lewitin, a biologist with a degree from Moscow State University, launched the scientific response against the theory that Western countries feared was a pretext for Russia to stage its own biological weapons attack.
He posted an open letter on Facebook and Change.org signed by more than 800 Russian biologists and university graduates, which said none of the destroyed strains were dangerous.
He added that they were common to microbiology labs and more so to epidemiology labs” and condemned the way Russian state media had reported the Defense Ministry’s claims. “Stop false propaganda based on misinformation and hate,” he said.
Pettersson, a Latvian and Swedish citizen, was part of a parallel effort involving nine other scientists from Russia, Belarus and France, who reviewed the documents and debunked Moscow’s claims.
In a detailed thread she shared in Russian, available in English, the group concluded that creating bioweapons would require “a much larger strain base than those listed.”
They said documents showed that “the Kharkiv lab only destroyed 40 test tubes and the Poltava lab destroyed 24”. The group also agreed with Lewitin’s conclusion that it is “absolutely evolutionarily impossible” for a bacterium to target a certain nationality.
“Before the war, I was writing about popular science, trying to educate people about what people shouldn’t be afraid of,” Pettersson told Newsweek. “So I felt responsible as a scientist given the opportunity to write in Russian to educate people” about the truth.
“It was so embarrassing for Russia to openly come forward with such a claim, based on these particular documents,” she said. “For a scientist, it was such a ridiculous accusation, such a ridiculous notion.”
Newsweek has contacted the Russian Foreign Ministry for comment.