Congress is moving this week to dismiss a proposed cut to spending on the Pentagon biosecurity program that discovered the coronavirus outside China and that is now the subject of Russian propaganda about Ukraine.
The defense section of the federal spending package that the Senate is expected to clear as early as Thursday night would allocate $229 million for the Biological Threat Reduction Program in fiscal 2022, just above the current $225 million level of spending — instead of the 45 percent cut the Biden administration had proposed.
The program helps some 30 countries prevent, detect and respond to outbreaks of disease or use of biological weapons. In January 2020, a lab in Thailand that received money from the Defense Department program was the first to find that the coronavirus had migrated outside China.
In June 2020, as the pandemic raged, CQ Roll Call disclosed that the Trump administration wanted to cut spending on the biological program and reported in 2021 that the Biden administration was following suit. The proposals have triggered outrage from members of Congress in both parties who have rebuffed the attempted cuts, including in the pending spending measure.
Now the Defense Department’s support for biosafety in one country — Ukraine — is in headlines around the world.
Russia has long claimed that such U.S.-sponsored programs in Ukraine and elsewhere are actually biological weapons labs.
But a top United Nations official refuted that claim Wednesday, saying it has no basis in fact. Top Biden administration officials have done the same. And they have suggested that Russia’s false claims about the Pentagon-backed labs may be setting the stage for a Russian attack in Ukraine using chemical or biological weapons.
Administration officials fear, alternatively, that Russia plans a so-called false flag operation, in which Russia would fraudulently claim that Ukraine has used biological or chemical weapons in order to create a pretext for some new military onslaught in Ukraine, perhaps even involving Russian pathogens or toxins.
As for the reasons behind the proposed cuts to the biological program, under President Donald Trump, Pentagon leaders said they wanted to spend the money on weapons such as hypersonic missiles and nuclear arms instead.
Under President Joe Biden, they offered a different explanation. Last year, a Pentagon official said the biological program’s fiscal 2022 funding request was down from the fiscal 2021 level because Congress had added so much money to the program in fiscal 2021.
In reality, Congress merely resisted Trump's proposed fiscal 2021 cut and slightly increased the program's budget. The program’s funding went from $203 million in fiscal 2020 to $225 million in fiscal 2021 as Congress rejected Trump’s proposed $127 million level. For fiscal 2022, Biden proposed dropping the program's budget to $124 million.
The program provides training and technical support to promote safety and security, disease surveillance and help in preventing the proliferation of biological materials, technology and components.
Andrew Weber, a former Pentagon assistant secretary for nuclear, chemical and biological defense, applauded Congress for once again this year resisting the reduction in funding.
“This program is part of our first line of defense against biological weapons attacks and pandemics,” said Weber, now a senior fellow at the Council on Strategic Risks think tank, in an email.
In Ukraine, the Pentagon biological program’s priorities are “to consolidate and secure pathogens and toxins of security concern and to continue to ensure Ukraine can detect and report outbreaks caused by dangerous pathogens before they pose security or stability threats,” according to the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine website.
According to the embassy, the Pentagon program has built a pair of labs in Ukraine at the “biosafety level 2” of security, the level required to handle diseases such as HIV. And the program has helped upgrade safety levels at other Ukrainian biological facilities and has set up mobile COVID-19 response labs.
Russia has long argued that the U.S.-sponsored labs are actually building biological and chemical agents.
On Wednesday, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova claimed the Kremlin had documents showing the Ukrainian health ministry had ordered the destruction of samples of plague, cholera, anthrax and other pathogens before Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine.
But spokespeople for the White House, Defense Department and State Department all rejected the Russian claims as bogus in statements on Wednesday.
Moreover, a U.N. spokesman, Stéphane Dujarric, said Wednesday that the World Health Organization is “unaware of any activity on the part of the Ukrainian government which is inconsistent with its international treaty obligations, including on chemical weapons or biological weapons.”
On Thursday, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told the Senate Intelligence Committee: “Now, let me be clear, we do not assess that Ukraine is pursuing either biological weapons or nuclear weapons,” and she said statements to the contrary are just Russian “propaganda.”
Marco Rubio of Florida, the committee’s top Republican, asked Haines to clarify a statement by a State Department official about U.S. concerns about the release of materials from these labs. Rubio said some people might infer that this means biological weapons are stored at the labs. Haines said the concern is about potentially hazardous materials but not about biological weapons.
The Russians are also suggesting Ukrainians might use chemical weapons and blame it on Moscow.
Susan Collins, R-Maine, asked CIA Director William J. Burns at Thursday’s hearing if Russia is going to launch a chemical or biological attack on Ukrainians.
Burns did not explicitly assess the likelihood of that but said: “I think it underscores the concern that all of us need to focus on those kinds of issues, whether it's the potential for a use of chemical weapons either as a false flag operation or against Ukrainians. This is something as all of you know very well is very much a part of Russia's playbook. They've used those weapons against their own citizens. They have at least encouraged the use in Syria and elsewhere. So it's something we take very seriously.”
Growing biological worries
The whirlwind of controversy around the normally obscure Pentagon biological program and related issues comes in the same week that U.S. intelligence agencies warned in unusually sharp terms that the threat of both pandemics and biological warfare is rising — a warning that received scant public attention.
“Countries globally remain vulnerable to the emergence of a novel pathogen that could cause a devastating new pandemic,” the report said. Drivers for disease, the report said, include deforestation, wildlife harvesting and trade, livestock production and climate change. The threat is accelerated, the intelligence agencies added, by "international travel and trade, inadequate global disease surveillance and control, distrust of public health authorities, health disinformation, and health system strain brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.”
America’s enemies, the spies said, may be emboldened in the current environment to develop and deploy biological weapons.
“Global shortcomings in preparedness for the pandemic and questions surrounding the origins of the COVID-19 virus and biosecurity may inspire some adversaries to consider options related to biological weapons developments,” the report said. “Rapid advances in dual-use technology, including bioinformatics, synthetic biology, and genomic editing, could enable development of novel biological weapons that complicate detection, attribution, and treatment.”
The U.S. spymasters' report was produced before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But in it they noted that China, Iran and Russia “have pushed narratives that further drive threat perceptions, including linking U.S. laboratories abroad to COVID-19 origins, breaches in biosafety, untrustworthy vaccines, and biological weapons.”