The U.S. has been subject to criticism for several covert projects which some claim are in breach of the ban on biological weapons. But there is no reason to suspect that such research would be done at this laboratory in Tbilisi.

TBILISI, DFWatch – A new U.S. financed biological laboratory opened in March 2011 near Tbilisi. It will have American military researchers working there. Is it a problem?

According to the website of the Central Public Health Reference Laboratory, it “will belong to an international network of infectious disease surveillance laboratories whose mission is to protect the world from pandemic diseases with high mortality”.

The Tbilisi lab is a highly sophisticated one for a country like Georgia, but is equipped in the same way as other reference labs the U.S. has in Thailand, Peru, Egypt and Kenya. Nonetheless, locals have been suspicious, a suspicion fueled by an inconsistent information strategy by authorities and wild speculation from Russian officials.

The U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency, which built the lab, said in 2009 that when finished, the lab would only be staffed by Georgians. But this spring, President Saakashvili’s administration said there will be American military researchers doing research at the lab. The head of Russia’s consumer protection agency, Gennady Onishchenko, grabbed onto this and said April 9 that he couldn’t understand why American military researchers would be stationed so close to Russia’s borders, and pointed out that the director of the facility is the former head of Georgia’s foreign intelligence service.

Early on in the development of this lab, suspicions abounded among locals that there was going to be weapons-research. In 2004, locals marched in protest against the plans. The suspicions were increased by the contradictory information given by authorities, who first described it to local journalists as a military project, under the responsibility of the Ministry of Defense, and later said it was a purely civilian project, and handed responsibility to the Ministry of Health.

On its web pages the Tbilisi CPHRL answers the question about whether there will be any weapons-related research with “No. The CPHRL will not be used to conduct any bio-weapons research.” But many would say that this is not a simple yes or no-question, because of what is called dual use: technology which is only meant for curing disease, might be turned into a weapon.

That is the reason why there is a convention obligating countries to report potentially dangerous research, and also why transparency is so essential in all biological research that has potential for being used for weapons, according to Gunnar Jeremias at the University of Hamburg’s Research Group for Biological Arms Control.

-The U.S. financial support for these labs comes from the military budget and often U.S. military staff is working in these labs. Although in many countries there is a more distinct division of civilian and military tasks, this is not uncommon and does not per se mean that there is a problem. First of all these laboratories are valuable instruments to serve the benefit of public health. However, when the military (of any county) supports dual-use technology, and a modern BSL-3 biotechnology lab can be labeled as such, it requires the highest degree of transparency. Doing things in secret is a source of distrust on the international level, Jeremias says, and points out that the record of critical U.S. biodefense work is by many considered an important reason for transparency.

In September 2001, three journalists revealed in an article in the New York Times what was called Project Bacchus, where DTRA, which built the Tbilisi lab, did a covert investigation to determine whether it was possible to build a bioweapons production facility with off-the-shelf equipment. The project ran from 1999-2000 and the participating researchers were able to successfully produce one kg of highly-refined anthrax particles.

The U.S. has also had a project to reconstruct the Soviet “bio-bomb” in a project called Clear Vision, also revealed by the same three journalists in a New York Times article. Project Clear Vision is controversial because it might be in violation of the ban on biological weapons and some suspect it is part of larger biological weapons program by the U.S. Currently, the world does not have the means of carrying out inspections of suspected U.S. facilities, because the convention banning such weapons does not include inspection procedures.

More recently, the U.S. funded a project at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam in which researchers put a gene from the bird flu virus into the genetic code of the swine flu virus. Bird flu is dangerous, but hard for people to catch, whereas swine flu is more easily passed on between humans. The result was a virus that easily was passed between ferrets, but it didn’t kill the animals. The Washington Post reports that even though the experiment didn’t produce a “doomsday virus”, it still was so sensitive, because of exactly the dual use potential, that the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, a committee of scientists that advises the U.S. government about federally funded research, asked the editors of two respected journals to hold off publishing papers about it.

Jeremias says experiments aimed at artificially creating dangerous pathogens are unproductive. But there is no reason why such tasks would be done in Tbilisi or any of the other laboratories the U.S. has in developing countries, according to Jeremias.

-The point is that the labs are there to do Georgian research, supported by U.S. money and know-how. I don’t think that they are doing stuff that the U.S. doesn’t want to do at home.

He adds that he is speaking in general terms, and has not had time to look into the Tbilisi lab in particular and check its transparency performance.

-Is there a scientific reason for having such labs close to the source of such pathogens, which are found in the wild here in the Caucasus region?

-The reason why they do the research in Georgia is that countries want to have the capabilities to do qualified research on their own. And I can understand that. Why should science be dependent on central labs in foreign countries?

If the U.S. wanted to make bombs out of the viruses and bacteria which exist in the wild in the Caucasus region, like the Soviet Union did, it would not be necessary to do that here, as the pathogens may easily be transported to the U.S. for that. But at the same time, article ten of the bioweapons convention sets a goal of supporting expertise in developing countries to avoid the risks with handling such dangerous agents. As such, the stated aim of Tbilisi CHRL – “to nurture future generations of Georgian public and animal health experts and researchers by establishing a U.S. presence and attracting international organizations such as the World Health Organization to partner with lab staff” — falls in line with the goals of the international community in this area.

As fas as Jeremias is able to tell from available information, there is nothing problematic with the lab, but transparency is essential for the public to have trust in what is going on.

DF Watch tried, but did not succeed in calling the CPHRL for comments.