ArmInfo.The topic of American biological laboratories in the territory of the former Soviet republics has recently become the so-called "subject of general conversation", but the essence of the topic remains as "a system with two unknowns".
The correspondent of ArmInfo asked Grigor Grigoryan, an international biological safety expert, virologist, former head of the State Food Safety Service, to shed light on this "phenomenon" hidden from the eyes of "ordinary people".
- Mr. Grigoryan, thank you very much for accepting our proposal to address this topic, which is of great relevance, but at the same time "disguised" by big politics in the light of general global processes. I would like to start our conversation with a rather banal question. How many American biological laboratories are still operating on the territory of Armenia today, and is the situation as bad as it is presented, that is, do they pose a threat to our population?
This is not a new story, and it dates back to 2009, when negotiations began on Armenia's accession to the Biological Threat Reduction Program. A year later, in 2010, an agreement was signed, and in 2011 the restoration process of our main laboratory located in the Avan administrative district of Yerevan, began. It refers to the former main anti-plague station, which became the center of the State Anti-Epidemiological Service after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Repair work was first carried out by the Black & Veatch engineering firm, which was ordered by the Pentagon, and then this work was continued by another company. The American side repaired all the regional anti-plague stations that were established back in the Soviet years, since the republic was considered permanently unfavorable for a number of infectious diseases, including plague. And this was justified, since we had natural focal plague infections, which, of course, have already been eliminated, but stationary foci are still smoldering in nature.
By the way, branches were not opened everywhere, but where it was appropriate. I believe that the choice of the region was far from being only epidemiological and geographical expediency. In short, a total of 10 regional and one metropolitan laboratories were reanimated.
But, the most interesting thing is that when these laboratories began to open with great fanfare in 2016, they had already been functioning for at least three years. Why they were so late with their presentation, according to the data I have, by that time the entire asset of the microorganisms collected by these laboratories had already been taken out of the country. So the key work has already been done.
Despite the fact that the initial batch of microorganisms had already been taken out by 2017, there remained the last stronghold that resisted to the last. It was the former FMD Institute, where I once worked as a researcher. Director of this institute, Khachik Sargsyan, who also works at the "Vector" Russian Institute of Medical Biotechnology - a powerful specialist in African plague, despite pressure, refused to provide a collection of microorganisms that were in the institute at that time. But in 2017 he was removed from his post, and the entire collection sailed overseas.
A huge collection was also collected at our Institute of Microbiology named after Afrikyan. And they took it too. At first, the samples were transported to the main sanitary and epidemiological station in Avan, allegedly for centralized storage and prevention of their leakage. But it was such a legend, because experts know that from a safety point of view, it is wrong to store all microorganism samples in one place. However, we understood that in fact, almost all the materials were then taken out. I cannot be 100% sure, but it is also known that there are two underground biological laboratories in the Ararat region.
- If you recall, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov flew to Yerevan and announced the signing of an Armenian-Russian memorandum on the access of Russian specialists into American laboratories. Negotiations to conclude a memorandum on cooperation in the field of biological safety were completed in November 2019, but the memorandum itself was signed only in May 2021. Why do you think the signing of the document was delayed and is it currently being implemented?
The whole point is that the Americans leave their laboratories on the balance sheet of the state in which they are established. As for the laboratories on the territory of Armenia, when Lavrov arrived, and it was announced that a memorandum would be signed soon, which would open access for Russian specialists to these laboratories, I already warned that do not expect the document to be signed soon. I said that this would not happen until the American side approved the document. This is no secret to anyone - the Americans financed the work of these laboratories, fully equipped them and thus, of course, completely control their work and everything connected with them.
It seems to me that the Russian side could not have been unaware of this, and therefore Lavrov's visit and the issue of access to biological laboratories were of some formal nature. After all, the issue stalled, which was to be expected. Yes, during the preparation of the document, both amendments and adjustments were made, but the fact remains that it was not signed. Our side is delaying this issue.
I will tell you that not only the authorities of Armenia are resisting Russia. As far as I know, Kazakhstan is also against Russia's intervention through such a body as the CSTO. At a recent meeting of the CSTO PA, Kazakhstan blocked most of the proposals. Further resistance is only a matter of time. Armenia, in a milder form, but supports, figuratively speaking, the "anti-Russian" position of Kazakhstan on the issue of biological safety.
- There is information that there are a significant number of uncontrolled animal burial grounds in Kyrgyzstan and, as a result, there is fertile ground for the spread of the plague bacillus. And the American side is interested in working in this country.
There are about 2000 animal burial grounds in Kyrgyzstan, but the issue of plague does not depend on them. Animal burial grounds exist among all nomadic peoples. A similar situation is observed in Mongolia. I would even say that the situation is even worse there. But, you need to understand that the plague is not associated with livestock. Most likely, this is due to the practice of using marmots for food by pastoralists in these countries. But marmots themselves are a reservoir of the plague bacillus. I encountered this in 2013 when I worked in Tajikistan. Then a plague epidemic broke out in the Talas region of Kyrgyzstan, and I was asked to lead the work related to preventing the entry of this virus into Tajikistan from Kyrgyzstan. And in all cases, it turned out that the sick person ate marmot shish kebab. Our American partners are well aware of this and are successfully using it. And usually any outbreak of plague is somehow connected with the facts of eating marmots.
Due to the frequent change of leaders in all levels of power in Kyrgyzstan, it is difficult for me to clearly assess what is happening there on our topic. However, they cannot deny that the American side is quite active there, although not active in terms of laboratories. But it is active in another related area. This is a breeding program for insects. They have this "Insect Allies" program where they breed mutant insects that eat pests. What kind of insect pests we are talking about, I can't imagine. From this point of view, the Americans are very stubborn and achieve their goal at any cost.
- In fact, the logical conclusion from what you said is that the CSTO could not succeed in biosecurity policy. Did the organization fail to "block" the Americans?
Not everything is so smooth at the CSTO, as there are a lot of problems in the Organization today. And as recent developments show, the CSTO did not exist as a military-political alliance, and the only cementing mortar in this shaky organization is the Russian Federation. The issue of biosecurity within the framework of the CSTO has been present since its inception in May 1992, while the US biosecurity program was initiated only in 1998. So, draw a conclusion.
I personally believe, and this is my conviction, that the establishment of American biological laboratories on the territory of any country leads to its de facto colonization. For example, if the actions of the political team of a particular country do not satisfy the United States, Great Britain and NATO, the epidemiological situation in this country may deteriorate sharply. But there will be no proof of that. This is the reason for their interest in studying the epidemiological situation in other countries in order to know what to apply in case of anything. Although, if desired, it is always possible to prove the use of biological weapons.
-What would you say about the activities of the Tbilisi laboratory named after Richard Lugar? There are many rumors about its activities.
The US initially divided the post-Soviet area into its spheres of influence: the European region, Transcaucasia and Central Asia. Ukraine was chosen as a strike base in the European region. Georgia was chosen as its center of influence in Transcaucasia, which borders the North Caucasus, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Iran. Kazakhstan was chosen as a springboard for Central Asia, where the very famous scientific center for quarantine and zoonotic diseases named after M. Aikimbayev has been operating since Soviet times.
But let's get back to our region. Georgia is a transit point - all collections of microorganisms are transported through it to the United States. Back in 2005, Azerbaijan donated its collections - about 65 pathogens, if I'm not mistaken. Their processing is carried out in Georgia, since the Russian servicemen don't have access there, and the Americans act more freely in this country. I was the only expert who got into this laboratory. Then I was still an expert of the European Commission. On the same day after that, the chief veterinarian of Georgia was arrested, and the virologist of the laboratory was removed from his post. And I was the only expert who was there at all. And even then it was clear that there has to be a reason why there are biolaboratories of the second and third levels of security.
Now Georgia is considered one of the centers of biological influence, it is the US biological intelligence unit in the region, deployed in a strategic direction. And the influence from here is possible in a number of key directions (Russia, Turkey, Armenia, etc.), including hot spots such as Dagestan, Chechnya, Karachay- Cherkessia, which is very convenient. And unlike Kazakhstan and Ukraine, Georgia has a specific area of activity: they are studying arboviruses, a group transmitted by arthropods (ticks, flies, etc.). All kinds of exotic insects are bred there. For example, we have aigupta mosquitoes - this is an Asian tiger, atypical for the Transcaucasus, its habitat is the jungles of Thailand, Cambodia, etc. A similar situation was also observed in the Caribbean region, when the Zika virus was brought there, and children began to be born with microcephaly.
But for the sake of fairness, it is worth noting, I should note that any country has the right to stop the implementation of these programs, as, for example, Indonesia did in 2009. When they realized what the Americans were really doing as part of the biological threat reduction program, the Indonesian government closed all laboratories and gave an ultimatum to the foreign experts to leave the country.
- At a meeting on November 30, 2022, the government of Armenia approved the draft ratification of the amended version of the agreement with the United States "On cooperation in the field of preventing the spread of technologies, pathogens and knowledge that can be used in the development of biological weapons." In the signed new version, the mentioned paragraph was amended, the mandatory nature of the transfer of pathogens to the United States is now canceled, Armenia can transfer these data at its discretion, and they will only concern pathogens of infections, various viruses and diseases. How would you interpret this document? What they are doing as part of the biological threat reduction program is a violation of the Biological Weapons Convention, which prohibits the proliferation of biological weapons. They make Armenia an indirect accomplice of all this. If, despite various warnings, including from a strategic ally, you participate in these activities, you consciously become a participant in the program. It is still difficult to say how it will affect Armenia. The Armenian authorities have actually taken an anti-Russian, or, if you like, pro- American position. Unfortunately, today these two terms are synonymous. People are going all in. I do not know what caused this approach, but today our state, being a member of the CSTO, operates on the principle of " Freeze ears to spite my grandmother." The Russian Federation, within the framework of the CSTO, makes a specific proposal, while Armenia reviews the agreement with the United States and approves it, only changing the wording "mandatory" to "optional." That clearly shows that Armenia has made its choice and, in fact, has publicly stated that it will continue to provide pathogens to the United States. If Russia could stop this process, it would have done it already.