For years, Russia targeted conspiracy theories at a US-funded lab on the frontline of coronavirus testing
Sputnik/Alexei Druzhinin/Kremlin via REUTERS
- The $350 million Tbilisi Lugar biomedical lab in Georgia, funded by the US government, has been the target of Russian disinformation campaigns and conspiracy theories since 2011.
- The lab's aim is to bolster infectious disease testing, and to monitor dangerous pathogens left over from Soviet-era war programs.
- Most recently, the lab has been a key center for testing for COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus.
- But Russian state actors have been claiming, without evidence, that America uses it for secret experiments that harm local people.
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A $350 million biomedical lab funded by the US government has been the target of Russian disinformation campaigns and conspiracy theories since it opened in 2011. Most recently, the lab, based outside the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, has been a key center for testing for COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus.
The Tbilisi Lugar Lab is funded by a US government program to bolster infectious disease testing, and to monitor dangerous pathogens in the Caucasus region left over from Soviet era Cold war programs.
But for years it has starred in Russian media and government campaigns to portray the facility as responsible for a slew of false stories about secret government testing on Georgian citizens, to being responsible for COVID-19, Ebola, flu outbreaks and even producing the nerve agent that poisoned a Russian spy who defected to the UK in Salisbury in 2018.
The most recent allegations came this winter as COVID-19 began its spread out of China into nearby Iran and the rest of the region. Russian media and state defense officials pushed the possibility that the lab was engineering the virus as part of a secret US bioweapons program.
A long-debunked allegation that the facility had killed 30 people in secret Hepatitis C tests
Speaking to Russia's Ren TV, an outlet frequently accused of promoting anti-Western conspiracy theories, Russian military affairs "expert" Igor Nikulin told an interviewer the virus appeared to be an American creation intended to hurt China and potentially Russia, while making profits off the treatment and potential vaccinations.
"It can be beneficial for American corporations that are developing these kinds of new diseases just for profit. Or maybe for the Americans themselves, because America is the only country that has 400 military biological laboratories around the world, not only around Russia, but also around China, in Malaysia, in Indonesia, in the Philippines - the US military is everywhere working," he said.
The interviewer then pointed to the Lugar Lab facility as a possible source, citing a long-since debunked allegation by a former Georgian security official, in 2018, that the facility had killed as many as 30 people in secret Hepatitis C tests. In a later interview with the BBC, Igor Giorgadze, the former head of Georgia's internal security service, was forced to admit that he had no evidence for those claims.
Now, even hard-right members of Georgia's political establishment appear to recognize its success
But since the outbreak of COVID-19, the lab has become the prime testing center for Georgia's campaign to contain the virus. At the last count the country had about 34 cases. The facility is being converted into a testing lab focused on identifying people infected with the virus and delivering results within 24 hours, a turnaround significantly faster than seen in the US or UK.
Even hard-right members of Georgia's political establishment who were once critics of the facility appear to recognize its success thus far in containing the outbreak, according to an interview done by the Georgia based Coda online publication.
"There's always been a big question mark about the Lugar Lab," said Sandro Bregadze, from the hard-right Georgian March Party, who had repeatedly called for closing the lab prior to the pandemic, but now recognizes its value.
"When something is secret there are always doubts - are they working in the Lab on some kind of biological or chemical weapon? [But now] I think that the Lugar laboratory plays a very important role in the fight against the virus," he said. "I want to thank the lab for doing such a good job."
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