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Russia warns of ‘military measures’ over US-funded lab in Georgia

5 October 2018
Lugar Centre in Tbilisi (NCDC)

The chairman of the Russian Duma’s Defence Committee has warned that Russia will take ‘diplomatic and military measures’ over a US-funded lab in Georgia. He said the Lugar Centre in Tbilisi was ‘designing bio-weapons and viruses’, while Georgia called the accusation ‘absurd propaganda’.

Vladimir Shamanov demanded an inspection of the laboratory with the ‘presence of Russian specialists’.

Georgia’s Foreign Ministry called the allegations ‘absurd’ and ‘yet another propagandist attempt to discredit the US–Georgian relationship’.

On Thursday, Russia’s Defence Ministry claimed that the laboratory stored ‘munitions intended for delivering chemical and biological agents’ and that dozens of people had been killed during experiments carried out by the lab.

‘The United States is very likely to have tested a toxic drug or a highly lethal biological agent at the Lugar Centre in Georgia under the guise of medical research’, Chief of Russia’s Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Protection Troops Igor Kirillov said.

The allegations came the same day Russia was accused of cyber attacks by American, British, and Dutch officials.

On the same day, the Russian Defence Committee chairman and former commander of the Russian Airborne Troops, Vladimir Shamanov, told Russian news agency TASS that ‘a number of measures will be taken at the national level’.

‘We cannot just turn a blind eye, knowing that something that directly affects security on the southern border is happening there. We will take diplomatic and military measures’, said Shamanov, stressing that he did not currently see a need for increasing the number of units at the Radiation, Chemical, and Biological Protection Troops in southern Russia.

Georgian officials said the allegations were aimed at discrediting Georgia’s relations with its strategic partner.

‘This is yet another propaganda of a lie Russia is constantly spreading, with the aim to discredit the US–Georgian relationship. Of course we will react accordingly with all the tools and leverage the foreign ministry has’, Foreign Ministry official Vladimer Konstantinidi told journalists on Friday.

The head of Lugar Laboratory told Ipress that ‘Russian journalists were smiling during their visit at the laboratory but spread filth later’.

‘We don’t experiment on animals, let alone people’, said Imnadze.

Where allegations about laboratory come from

The Richard Lugar Centre for Public Health Research is a US-funded facility run under the Georgian Health Ministry’s control. It officially opened in August 2013 but its establishment began in 2004 following US–Georgia agreements signed in 1997 and 2002 on cooperation in the prevention of proliferation of technology and pathogens related to the development of biological weapons.

Russia began officially expressing concern about the lab after former Georgian security chief Igor Giorgadze made a statement in Moscow on 11 September that the Lugar Laboratory was conducting experiments on people and creating biological weapons.

Giorgadze served as Georgia’s State Security Minister in 1993–1995. He left Georgia in 1995 after an investigation was launched against him for the attempted assassination of former Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze.

He was sought by the Interpol but charges against him were dropped in 2016 after he was granted asylum in Russia. In Moscow, Giorgadze founded the Justice Party and an organisation called ‘Anti-Soros’.

Giorgadze’s statements about the lab were widely covered in Russian media and by pro-Russian Georgian media. Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova urged the US Department of State to make explanations on Giorgadze’s allegations.

‘It’s quite possible that biologists from the US army science group and hired people working on contracts for the Defence Threat Reduction Agency conducted secret experiments on the Georgian population, frequently ending with lethal consequences […] 30 people undergoing Hepatitis C treatment died in December 2015 with 24 people dying within one day. “Cause of death is unknown” is written in the relevant column… Then, 30 more persons died in April and 13 more people – in August 2016 for unknown reasons. Unfortunately, no investigation has been conducted into the facts so far’, said Giorgadze.

The Lugar lab is a central part of Georgia’s National Centre for Disease Control Public Health (NCDC). The head of the NCDC, Amiran Gamkrelidze, hosted a briefing on Friday at the in response to the allegations.

‘We wouldn’t respond to [Russian chief medical doctor] Onischenko’s and Giorgadze’s speculations and nonsense, but given that the topic has been picked up by official Russian circles, we decided to discuss this again and state that all the information spread by Russian media and official sources is false and aimed at discrediting progress and innovations in our country’, said Gamkrelidze.

He also added that Russian experts who are interested in Lugar Laboratory have already been invited to the country.

He said that on 14–15 November, Tbilisi would host the Bio-Laboratory Assessment Workshop in which representatives from 20 countries will participate. He said they have sent an invitation to Russia as well, but haven’t received a response.

‘Absurd propaganda’

Myth Detector, a myth-debunking initiative by the Media Development Foundation (MDF), a local non-profit group, investigated Giorgadze’s statements and found his allegations ‘absurd’ because ‘the Lugar Laboratory is involved only in the part of diagnostics rather than treatment of the Hepatitis C elimination programme’.

‘The claims that Sovaldi medication used for the treatment of Hepatitis C is the reason for the death of patients have no scientific proof, since Sofosbuvir, sold under the brand name Sovaldi, as well as Harvoni, used at the next stage of treatment, does not need testing, as both medications have European and American quality verification documents and are widely used not only in Georgia but in many other countries of the world. It should be noted that 24,481 out of 36,012 patients involved in the Georgian program in 2015–2017 recovered from the disease’, says Myth Detector’s report.

MDF’s 2017 report on anti-Western propaganda said that propaganda messages about Lugar Laboratory have been circulating in the pro-Russian media in the past as well.

‘Like in previous years, 2017 also saw publication of conspiracies about the Richard Lugar Public Health Research Centre in Tbilisi, according to which the centre was engaged in developing lethal viruses with the aim to destroy the Georgian gene’, the report says.

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