The Russian invasion of Ukraine may put at risk a network of US-linked labs in Ukraine that work with dangerous pathogens, said Robert Pope, the director of the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, a 30-year-old Defense Department program that has helped secure the former Soviet Union’s weapons of mass destruction and redirect former bioweapons facilities and scientists toward peaceful endeavors.
“I would say from every facility that we have worked with them in, we have confidence that as long as the electrical power is turned on and the people we have trained are present at the facility, the biosafety officers, that these pathogens are safe and secure to international standards,” Pope said. “Should these facilities be damaged by conflict, that could change.”
The pathogens with which the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program labs work are generally kept frozen, so they can’t replicate and become infectious. The risk the pathogens pose would increase if a building lost power and suffered damage. “If you lose the electrical power, the pathogens in the freezers warm up,” he said. “If the ventilation system is damaged, or the building itself is damaged, and these now ambient-temperature pathogens are able to escape the facility, then they can be potentially infectious in the region around the facility.”
The pathogens in Ukrainian labs vary by facility, Pope said, but some can be characterized as presenting a concern in the Ukrainian environment. As an example, he cited African swine fever virus, which is highly contagious in pigs and has caused hundreds of outbreaks in Ukraine since 2012. Some labs, he said, may hold pathogen strains left over from the Soviet bioweapons program, preserved in freezers for research purposes.US official: Russian invasion of Ukraine risks release of dangerous pathogens – Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists