The United States, Georgia and Kazakhstan have established a network of state-of-the-art scientific labs to safely guard dangerous pathogens, monitor and respond to infectious-disease outbreaks, and promote public-health research.

The Cooperative Biological Engagement Program was first established by the U.S. Department of Defense following the theft of biological materials that could prove catastrophic to human and animal health if used in a terrorist attack.

After the Soviet Union’s collapse in the early 1990s, there were several thefts or near-thefts of poorly protected biological materials. Notably, in 1992, armed men seized plague and cholera microbe samples from a lab in Sukhumi, Georgia. And in 1995, thieves — reportedly motivated by a desire to stage a biological terrorist attack — stole plague, cholera and anthrax cultures in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

A scientist works in a biosafety laboratory. (© AP Images)

The network of labs that has been built in reaction to such threats includes the Richard G. Lugar Center for Public Health Research in Tbilisi, Georgia, and the Central Reference Laboratory in Almaty. The locations were selected to provide jobs for local biologists and to make communities safer by closing down existing laboratories with less-modern equipment. The network’s labs allow examination of biological samples without risks — to the whole world — that would be created if they were shipped to a third country.

The Lugar Center, operated by the Georgian government, can rapidly and safely detect infectious diseases and facilitate a quick response in the event of an outbreak. The Central Reference Laboratory in Almaty, scheduled to become operational in 2016 under the management of the Kazakhstan government, will also be capable of detecting and responding. (By 2018, the respective governments will assume full ownership of and funding responsibilities for the labs.)

False accusations corrected

While some have falsely portrayed the program as a covert effort by the U.S. to develop biological weapons, top Kazakhstani and Georgian scientists counter such accusations:

  • In 2014, Bakhyt Atshabar, director of the Kazakh Scientific Center of Quarantine and Zoonotic Diseases, was clear with journalists visiting the lab construction site in Kazakhstan, saying, “There will be no development of biological weapons.”
  • In 2015, during another visit by journalists, Zhandarbek Bekshin, Kazakhstan’s chief sanitary doctor, confirmed to RIA Novosti the exclusively civilian nature of the project, noting that the Central Reference Laboratory is being built “within the framework of an intergovernmental agreement to mitigate biological threats.” The lab “will secure material already present in Kazakhstan,” Bekshin said. He explained that individuals who are “not interested in increasing Kazakhstan’s biological security” are spreading disinformation about the lab.
  • Dr. Amiran Gamkrelidze, director general of the National Center for Disease Control and Public Health in Tbilisi, which runs the Lugar Center there, called Russian claims that it was part of some U.S. operation to develop weapons “complete absurdity.” Gamkrelidze said the laboratory actively cooperates with Europe, the U.S. and neighboring countries on joint scientific research projects and would welcome new research proposals.
  • In 2015, Batu Kutelia, Georgia’s former ambassador to the United States and deputy secretary of Georgia’s National Security Council, published an article dismissing Russian claims that the Lugar Center threatened the health of Georgian citizens. Exactly the opposite, Kutelia said. The Lugar Center “helps protect Georgian citizens against epidemics and infectious diseases, promotes economic and agricultural development, and makes a contribution to global security.”
A man enters a biosafety laboratory. (© AP Images)

Officials of Georgia and Kazakhstan have provided journalists, scientists and foreign officials with regular access to the sites. After touring the Lugar Center in August 2013, Alexander Rogatkin, a Russian journalist from the state-run television channel Rossiya, reported that no biological weapons were being produced at the facility and assured the Russian Foreign Ministry it had no basis for concern. Rogatkin further expressed surprise at how openly the lab’s management answered all of his questions.

Czech Ambassador to Georgia Ivan Jestrab also toured the Lugar Center with other diplomats in September 2013 and noted that his group was greeted with “extraordinary openness.” They could ask any question and see anything in the lab they wanted to see. “I am sure that this scientific center is purely dedicated to peaceful research,” Jestrab said.