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microbiologists debunk “biolabs” conspiracy theory

If you’ve been doomscrolling social media during the Russian invasion of Ukraine, you have probably seen a bunch of “US-funded biolabs with deadly pathogens in Ukraine” claims.

Russian media and government representatives (+ Chinese and Serbian) are pushing this narrative as one of the reasons for Putin’s “special military operation”.

One of them is Glenn Greenwald, once a respectable journalist.

In an hour-long Rummble video, Glenn Greenwald supports Russian claims that the Ukrainians were carrying out “emergency disposal” of dangerous pathogens they had been developing with the US.

Debunk time!

This thread is a collaboration by scientists from Belarus, France, Russia, and Sweden on the topic of Ukraine’s development of bacteriological weapons.

In the screenshot from the tweet below, Russian outlet RIA Novosti publishes documents it says were obtained by the Russian Ministry of Defense. They claim to show that the Ukrainians were scrubbing evidence of a biological weapons research program.

So, Zyuganov, RIA, the Foreign Ministry, and others have become preoccupied with documents allegedly proving that biological weapons were being developed in Ukraine.

Here, we’ll analyze:

1/ What’s the document and why do such documents exist.
2/ Why bacteria are stored.
3/ What kind of bacteria are on the list.

What’s in the document?

First, let’s talk about laboratory practices. There’s a classification system for microbes, BSL (BioSafety Level), or biological protection level. It goes from 1 to 4.

1 – harmless organisms that do not cause disease.
2 – organisms capable of causing minor infections in humans and animals
3 – organisms capable of causing serious infections (COVID-19 is on this level)
4 – deadly organisms (plague, cholera, smallpox, ebola, etc.)

Depending on the BSL level, microbial laboratories require different levels of certification, different levels of equipment, air filtration, and personnel protection different routines for setting up experiments and destroying microorganisms.

Any serious lab working with potentially pathogenic microbes (BSL2 often, BSL3 or 4 always) should have standard routines for destroying them after the experiments are finished.

Let’s say you checked some microbes for sensitivity to antibiotics, and now you’ve still got them in your Petri dish. Naturally, you can’t just throw them in the trash. Such cultures are autoclaved (e.g using steam sterilization) exactly as indicated in the “leaked” document.

Thе “moist heat” method is used even in medical institutions where there is a high degree of infection with resistant types of bacteria: high pressure lowers the boiling point of water. So, without any difficulty, it’s possible to maintain a constant 120-135 °C over time. This is sufficient to kill even temperature-resistant bacterial spores, such as bacillus spores.

When doing this, the safety officer draws up a ‘certificate of destruction,’ which must be signed by the laboratory assistants who performed the procedure and the head of the laboratory.

So the “leaked” document is a standard bureaucratic procedure in any good microbiological laboratory, especially if it’s certified through the international ISO standard.

From the texts of the documents on the screenshots, you can see that they belong to the Kharkiv and Poltava Regional Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of the Ministry of Health of Ukraine, i.e. sanitary and epidemiological authorities.

Having such protocols in these laboratories is an international norm.

Why are bacteria stored?

Collections of such strains are used to test equipment or a certain method (the familiar PCR) that detect these bacteria.

During the test, first, a sterile sample is used, and then a sample guaranteed to contain a certain bacterium. Then they look to see if the results are as expected.

The calibrated instrument or method can then be used for either clinical sample identification or scientific research. The sterile sample is simple, but how can you get a sample of a purified bacterium that doesn’t contain impurities of other creatures and substances?

You can, of course, isolate it from nature, and then comb through it many times over many months, but it’s much easier to just buy a ready-to-use culture in a jar.

For example, here’s an advertising booklet from the site of the Russian firm Galen.

What kind of bacteria are on the list?

We’ve compiled a table with all the microbes listed in the documents and posted it in free access for everyone to see (in Russian).

Are there deadly disease agents on the list? Not a sigle one. NO cholera, plague, tularemia, typhus, anthrax, legionnaires’ disease, syphilis, etc.

Types of strains?

We’d be hypocrites if we didn’t emphasize the difference between various species of bacteria and their strains. Let’s explain it briefly.

Reference bacterial strains can be purchased from many microbial collections worldwide, including the Russian ones.

They are used for comparative analysis when it is necessary to compare the properties of a hospital or experimental isolates with a known standard. In the table, these are the strains labeled ATCC, NCTC, and VKM.

In the documents, we’ve provided links to exactly those strains so that anyone can read about their properties and the level of biological protection when working with them.

*Note that while the ATCC and NCTC collections are American VKM stands for “Vserossiiskaya Kollektsiya Mikroorganizmov” — “All-Russian Collection of Microorganisms” — i.e. the strains were ordered from Russia.

Clinical strains (aka hospital isolates) – are obtained from samples (skin, blood, pus, sputum, smears, etc.) taken from sick people. Clinical strains are compared with reference strains in order to correctly identify them and learn about their properties.

These tests are needed to clarify the clinical picture, to determine the correct treatments and the conditions of the patient. Such strains can be resistant to a number of antibiotics.

Strains are also taken from the environment – water, soil, plants, waste, etc. They are used to study various biological processes. In general, these do not pose a health hazard.

Experimental strains are used for scientific research. From such isolates, it is possible to identify the gene responsible for their toxicity and study the difference between a toxic and non-toxic strain.

You can set up experiments to study the functions of bacterial cells, such as division, sensitivity to various antibiotics, the effects of chemical compounds, survival conditions, etc.

There are also industrial strains, of course. From many bacteria, various compounds can be obtained by chemical purification. One such common commercially used compound is Botox (a toxin from the bacterium Clostridium botulinum).

This type of bacteria does not appear in the lists. In addition to the widely used Botox, enzymes, and preparations for scientific research, various proteins, complex compounds (for example, lipopolysaccharides) are extracted from bacteria and are widely used in various fields of experimental biology.

Hazard assessment of the strains on the list

Of all the bacteria on the list, only Klebsiella can be potentially dangerous.

One of the strains listed is the reference strain. We could not confirm the origin of the second strain. However, potentially dangerous multidrug-resistant clinical strains of Klebsiella are known to this day mainly from Southeast Asia.

Judging by the number of the strain in the table, this is most likely an internal clinical isolate. Then there’s the old favorite, Escherichia coli (E. coli). Probably one of the most studied bacteria.

It’s used as a model organism, for genetic engineering, and as a probiotic. Depending on the strain, this bacterium can be pathogenic or it can be a friend (it lives in our intestines). There is one strain of E. coli that many clinicians talk about, and that is O157.

This is the most common pathogen of all E. coli, causing diarrhea in animals and humans. Like any living organism, E. coli can mutate, and from a harmless bacterium of our microflora, it can become a pathogen.

But this takes a long time (several centuries). For example, strain O55 is the parent of O157, the latter took 400 years to become more pathogenic.

Of all Escherichia coli, the most dangerous is the O157:H7 strain – it causes bloody (hemolytic) diarrhea and kidney failure. In the absence of adequate treatment, its mortality is comparable to covid. But this is NOT on the list either.

It’s important to note that simply releasing a strain from the laboratory is tantamount to simply killing it: bacteria designed and stored in numerous collections are not adapted to survive in the wild – it’s equivalent to releasing an animal raised in a zoo into the forest with the hope that it will somehow adapt there.

In the same way, no one takes a strain of Escherichia coli from the street and starts doing research on it – they’ve developed protective mechanisms, including resistance to many bactericidal agents.

In order to create biological weapons, you need serious equipment and a much larger base of strains than those listed. Potentially dangerous strains need to be tested for a long time to determine their stability in the environment, as well as to study the method of delivery, its infectivity in various animal species, the rate of spread, and so on. The RIA photo shows that the Kharkiv branch destroyed only 40 test tubes, and the Poltava branch destroyed 24.

Test tubes! Not bioreactors, not even Erlenmeyer flasks, but test tubes! Without irony, we note that, to put it mildly, this is not enough to conduct research on bacteriological weapons.

What. It. All. Means?

It means that a pure microbiological laboratory was engaged in a standard cleaning. None of the above strains is a bacteriological weapon agent.

If you look at a list of what any microbiological laboratory (and especially clinical laboratory) consistently utilizes, then any such laboratory could be classified as a potential developer of weapons of mass destruction (including in Russia as well).

“Russian DNK”

In the thread about the human genome, we wrote that the genetic diversity between monkeys in one African forest is much greater than among all people on the planet. With chimpanzees, we only have a 2% difference for the entire genome of 3.2 billion nucleotides.

Of all people on the planet, this difference is less than 1%. There is no such thing as the Russian genome. Russians are a huge, multinational population.

Even if a person considers himself 100% Russian, then he can have the same blood as the Mongols and Tatars, Polovtsy and Pechenegs, and Neanderthals, and Denisovans, Jews, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Georgians, Greeks, etc.

All Slavic peoples are too genetically similar and do not differ strongly enough from other peoples of Europe. And if you think about the mass of mixed marriages between different Slavs and other nations, then we get a very motley mixture of genes.

We also note that Ukrainians are the second most common nationality in Russia. Also, about 60% of the US population has European roots, and about 10% – Slavic.

Therefore, obtaining a “military” bacterium specific only for a certain nationality, and especially for Russians, is absolutely evolutionarily impossible. Like a military virus. Even if it is carried by migratory birds or fighting bats.

Anyone who claims the opposite simply does not understand anything in human genomics, evolution, or bioinformatics. We won’t even argue.

All in all, pseudoscience.

The statements distributed by RIA, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, etc. are unsubstantiated pseudo-scientific bullshit.

The group that worked on the thread, parsing the list, and checking all the strains:
– Doctor of Biology, Sweden
– candidate of biological sciences, Belarus
– Doctor of Biological Sciences, France
– biologist, postgraduate student, Russia
– biologist, postgraduate student, Russia
– biologist, Russia
– microbiologist, Belarus
– microbiologist, Belarus
– microbiologist, postgraduate student, Belarus
Big thanks to Ilya Lozovsky.

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