A US Department of Defense research program to protect crops by changing the genes of insects could possibly violate the international Biological Weapons Convention, according to five European researchers who warned in a research paper published in the journal Science on October 4th, as reported by Sputnik.
“If successful, the technique could be used by malicious actors to help spread diseases to almost any crop species and devastate harvests,” said the paper, which was authored by the French and German researchers including geneticist Robert Guy Reeves of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Germany and evolutionary biologist Christophe Boete of the Institute of Research for Development in France.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) launched the project, called “Insect Allies,” in Arlington, Virginia in 2016, with the goal of using insects such as aphids to infect crops with tailor-made viruses that can deliver certain genes to mature plants, the researchers explained.
According to DARPA, the aim of the project is to find a new way to protect plants from emerging threats. The researchers, however, claimed that the program could easily be perceived as a covert effort to produce a biological weapon.
“In the context of the stated aims of the DARPA program, it is our opinion that the knowledge to be gained from this program appears very limited in its capacity to enhance US agriculture or respond to national emergencies,” they wrote. “As a result, the program may be widely perceived as an effort to develop biological agents for hostile purposes and their means of delivery, which — if true — would constitute a breach of the Biological Weapons Convention.”
However, DARPA Program Manager for Insect Allies Blake Bextine said that he disagrees with the researcher’s opinion.
“I appreciate the thought that went into the critique of the program presented in Science, though I disagree with its conclusions. Technologies dealing with food security and gene editing certainly do have a higher bar than most for transparency, research ethics, and regulatory engagement, and I believe Insect Allies meets that raised standard,” Bextine said.
On the same day, Russia’s Defense Ministry said that the US appeared to be running a clandestine biological weapons lab in the country of Georgia, allegedly flouting international conventions and posing a direct security threat to Russia.
Maj. Gen. Igor Kirillov, the head of the Russian military’s radiation, chemical and biological protection troops, alleged at a briefing that the lab in Georgia was part of a network of U.S. labs near the borders of Russia and China.
Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon strongly rejected Kirillov’s claims, calling them “an invention of the imaginative and false Russian disinformation campaign against the West” and “obvious attempts to divert attention from Russia’s bad behavior on many fronts.”
“The U.S. is not developing biological weapons in the Lugar Center,” Pahon said.
He said the lab, a joint human and veterinary public health facility, was owned and operated by the Georgian National Center for Disease Control and Public Health (NCDC).
“The mission of the Lugar Center is to contribute to protection of citizens from biological threats, promote public and animal health through infectious disease detection, epidemiological surveillance, and research for the benefit of Georgia, the Caucasus region and the global community,” Pahon said.
Russia’s Kirillov said the documents published by Giorgadze signaled more sinister activities were happening under the cover of civilian research. He noted that Giorgadze’s materials cited the deaths of 73 volunteers who took part in tests of a new drug at the lab in 2015-2016. The claim couldn’t be independently confirmed. Kirillov alleged the deaths showed the Lugar Center used the volunteers as guinea pigs in tests of a new deadly toxin.
The Russian general also claimed that the spread of viral diseases in southern Russia could have been linked to the activities of the Lugar Center. He pointed to the spread of the African swine fever (ASF) from Georgia since 2007 that caused massive losses for the Russian farm sector.
“It’s highly likely that the U.S. is building up its military biological potential under the cover of studying protective means and conducting other peaceful research, flouting international agreements,” he said.
He also said that the Giorgadze released documents contained a US patent for a drone intended to disseminate infected insects, other patents included projectiles for the delivery of chemical and biological agents.
“Such research doesn’t conform to Washington’s international obligations regarding the ban on biological and toxin weapons,” Kirillov said. “A legitimate question is why such documents are being stored in the Lugar Center for Public Health Research. We hope to receive a precise answer from Georgia and the United States.”
The General also claimed that the US has labs in Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and elsewhere. “The choice of location for such labs isn’t accidental,” Kirillov said, characterizing the research facilities as “a constant source of biological threats” to Russia and China.
Earlier, on September 10th, Russia also accused the US of carrying out airstrikes with white phosphorous bombs, which is a chemical weapon prohibited by international law over civilian areas in Syria. “Two American F-15 planes carried out bombings on September 8 [Saturday] targeting the area of Hajin in the Deir Ezzor region using incendiary phosphorous ammunition,” Russian general Vladimir Savtchenko said in a statement.
This all comes amid renewed accusations of Russian cyber-attacks on several world bodies. Russia was also recently sanctioned for the alleged biological weapons use in the failed assassination attempt of Russian ex-spy Sergei Skripal. US officials have also repeatedly accused Russia and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces of using chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict. None of these accusations have been accompanied by any evidence whatsoever.