In 2020, German researchers began to collaborate with Ukrainian colleagues to survey bat parasites, mostly bloodsuckers such as ticks and fleas. They wanted to know what kinds of bacteria the bats in Ukraine harbored—a first step in identifying any potential threats to human health. Researchers at the Institute of Experimental and Clinical Veterinary Medicine in Kharkiv collected 140 fleas, ticks, and flies, plucked from captured bats in eastern Ukraine. They drowned the parasites in ethanol and shipped them to the Friedrich Loeffler Institute (FLI) near Greifswald, Germany.
There, DNA from the parasites revealed the identity of pathogens such as Ricksettia, a common tick-borne bacterium. Results were presented at a German Veterinary Society conference in 2021. “It was very basic epidemiological research,” says FLI veterinary parasitologist Cornelia Silaghi, a leader of the collaboration.
So she was shocked and baffled when, on 10 March, an official with the Russian Ministry of Defense claimed the research was part of a secret, Western-funded bioweapons effort. Russian state TV and news sites cited the Defense Ministry report and said the work was a Ukrainian plot, aided by the United States, to send disease-ridden birds, bats, and reptiles over the border to infect Russians. This week, Russian President Vladimir Putin himself spoke about “dozens of laboratories in Ukraine” experimenting on coronaviruses, anthrax, and cholera “under the direction and financial support of the Pentagon.”
Silaghi’s straightforward collaboration swiftly became the eye of a disinformation storm: A few facts were spun into false accusations that were quickly amplified and spread via social media, repeated on Fox News, and discussed in QAnon forums. As supposed evidence, Russian authorities posted a grainy image of the sample transfer agreement between Silaghi’s lab and the Kharkiv veterinary institute.
“This is what makes disinformation work—you have to have these little kernels of truth,” says King’s College London biosecurity expert Filippa Lentzos. “If you’re able to plant enough doubt, people start to question.”
Russia has kept up its efforts to spread innuendo about the basic research. On 11 March, at a meeting of the U.N. Security Council called by Russian representatives to discuss alleged Ukrainian “biological warfare” research, diplomat Vassily Nebenzia claimed “bats were considered as carriers of potential bioweapon agents,” and offered the sample transfer agreement as proof. “We do not know anything about the fate of those dangerous biomaterials and the consequences that may occur once they ‘dissipate,’” Nebenzia told the Security Council. “Risks are high that they may be stolen for terrorist purposes or to be sold at the black market.”
“Rubbish,” Silaghi says. “I know their fate—they are in my freezer.” Besides, she explains, there are no pathogens that could be spread. The ethanol used to kill and preserve the parasites also destroys the pathogens, leaving only genetic material intact for sequencing. The project received no U.S. funding. “Yes, we did work on ectoparasites and receive samples,” Silaghi says. “But what’s been made of it—this bioweapon stuff—is completely crazy.”
Silaghi still doesn’t know how the Russian Ministry of Defense obtained the routine transfer agreement. Anton Vlaschenko, a Kharkiv-based biologist and collaborator on the project, suspects one of the team’s email accounts was hacked by Russians.
Nebenzia’s speech included another classic disinformation tactic: bringing up unrelated bioweapons violations from decades earlier—in this case, World War II–era Japanese research on fleas and ticks. Latching onto bats, meanwhile, might be a way to tap into hazy fears about COVID-19’s origins, Lentzos says. “People … start to think, ‘what else don’t I know about?’” she says. “All of it gets tangled together and causes a lot of unease.”
Other Ukrainian researchers have been swept up in the disinformation campaign. The Kharkiv veterinary institute is part of a larger network of research institutions that receives funding from the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) through its Biological Threat Reduction Program (BTRP). That decades-old effort aimed to secure the remnants of Soviet-era biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons research by dismantling labs and finding alternate work for Soviet weapons scientists. Later, the program–which included Russian labs until 2014–morphed into a public health and disease monitoring effort across the former Soviet Union, working with the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “That’s been turned into a narrative from Russia about a ring of American-funded labs on the Russian border,” Lentzos says.
According to DOD, the BTRP has provided $200 million in funding to Ukrainian scientists since 2005. Labs with even the thinnest connections to the program have been targeted as part of the disinformation effort. For example, Russian reports describe research on the gut microbiome of vipers by Oleksandr Zinenko, a herpetologist at V. N. Karazin Kharkiv National University who has collaborated with the Kharkiv veterinary institute in the past, as “bioweapons research,” even though the viper study was an independent project. “None of the microorganisms in a viper’s gut is especially dangerous,” Zinenko says.
He adds that none of his work on reptile and amphibian diseases is secret. “It’s all public information,” he says, with annual reports and conference posters “fully available” online.
To Vlaschenko, who runs the Ukrainian Bat Rehabilitation Center in Kharkiv, the efforts to turn their survey work into something menacing seems laughable–as long as Kharkiv remains in Ukrainian hands. “We don’t have such genetic laboratories that we would need for biological weapons,” he says. “It’s very funny to hear it from the Russians that we are doing this kind of research.” But if the city is occupied, Vlaschenko says he fears being captured and tortured into “some kind of confession.”
For Silaghi, who’s been getting disturbing emails from anonymous accounts, the experience has been deeply unsettling. One email insinuated that she was acting like a Nazi scientist. “Of course unscrupulous academics are involved, just like in the Third Reich,” it read in part.
“It’s very strange to be blamed for an almost absurd thing,” Silaghi says. “The Russians must know it’s a lie.”