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Biological lab funded by US sparks alarm

China Daily | Updated: 2023-03-08 07:40
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C. Asia unit said to be studying pathogens that could be used in bioterrorism attacks

A controversial biological laboratory in Kazakhstan has caused concerns among local residents. The laboratory used to be controlled by the Soviet Union, but now it is funded and built by the US.

In a suburb near the city of Almaty, Kazakhstan, the Central Reference Laboratory, which opened in 2017, is studying some of the deadliest pathogens that could be used in bioterrorism attacks.

The facility is a $102 million biosecurity laboratory funded by the United States Defense Threat Reduction Agency, or DTRA, and the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, or CTR. The lab is studying the highest-risk diseases such as plague and cholera, the National Geographic channel reported.

TASS news agency last January reported that social media speculated that experts in chemical protective suits were working near the lab due to "a leak of dangerous pathogens".

The lab's existence has been controversial, and the Kazakh government had previously denied any involvement in producing biological weapons.

The lab also provides steady employment for scientists who might otherwise be tempted to sell their high-level and potentially destructive knowledge to hostile groups, said Lieutenant Colonel Charles Carlton, director of the DTRA offices in Kazakhstan, according to National Geographic.

Historically, Kazakhstan monitored high-risk diseases in laboratories of the former Soviet anti-plague system, which fell into severe disrepair after the fall of the Soviet Union and the subsequent lack of funding, according to the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, a California-based nongovernmental organization that aims to curb the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

The US then engaged with this former Soviet lab through the CTR program. It was not the first time the US took over former Soviet biological research.

Beginning in the late 1990s, the US started to establish partnerships and develop collaborations in the field of biological research with a number of former Soviet republics to seek "to dismantle the former Soviet Union's massive biological weapons research, development and production infrastructure", according to The Jamestown Foundation, a Washington, DC-based think tank.

The DTRA and the CTR have carried out various "bio-threat reduction projects" in Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Ukraine, according to The Jamestown Foundation.

'Guise of peaceful research'

Moscow has repeatedly claimed that such cooperation represents a threat to Russia. Major General Igor Kirillov, the commander of Russia's Radiological, Chemical and Biological Defense Troops, in 2018 claimed, "under the guise of peaceful research, (the US) is building up its military-biological potential".

"The Pentagon has been doing it since 2005, working with Ukrainians, to quote, 'eliminate biological weapons' left behind by the Soviets. That makes sense," Fox News host Tucker Carlson said in Tucker Carlson Tonight in March 2022.

"But wait, 2005 was 17 years ago. How long does it take to eliminate Soviet bioweapons? Seventeen years seems like a long time. If you had 17 years and ample funding from Congress, you could probably remove and catalog every grain of sand on Waikiki Beach. And yet somehow, over that same period, 17 years, the Pentagon has not finished removing test tubes from Soviet-era freezers," he said.

In fact, the US has an increasing number of biolabs around the world.

The Biological Threat Reduction Program of the US Department of Defense, or DoD, has reportedly supported a total of 336 biolabs across regions, including Africa, East Europe, Central Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East, as well as several biosecurity labs operated directly by the DoD overseas, according to a report presented by the US to the Meeting of the Biological Weapons Convention in November 2021.

Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland in last March mentioned in a Senate hearing that she feared the labs in Ukraine would "fall into Russian hands", prompting further suspicions on the biological program.

"If nothing bad is happening in these biolabs, why are you concerned about them falling under Russian control?" Scotty A said in comments posted on YouTube.


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