China and Russia Unite to Condemn 'Hazardous' American Laboratories in Former Soviet States

China has complained that U.S. laboratories in former Soviet states could pose a public health risk, one day after a Russian official made the same allegation.

The accusation came as Washington and Beijing continue their public relations battle over the coronavirus pandemic, each blaming the other for its global spread and the resulting social and economic turmoil.

At a regular press briefing on Wednesday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said Beijing was concerned about American research laboratories in former Soviet nations, supporting accusations made by Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova on Tuesday.

"We took note of the statement made by the Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman," Geng told reporters, according to the state-backed CGTN news channel. "The United States has created many laboratories in the territory of the former Soviet Union, which evokes serious public worries in the neighboring countries concerned."

"The local public has been insistently demanding these facilities should be closed down," he added. "We do hope that the American side will display a responsible attitude, take into account the official concern of the world community and make real steps to eliminate such fears."

The Russian and Chinese complaints come as American intelligence agencies and lawmakers focus their attention on the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which both President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have suggested could be the source of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

U.S. intelligence officials are exploring this possibility—as revealed by Newsweek this week—though there is not yet any clear evidence that the novel coronavirus outbreak started at the Wuhan lab. Chinese officials and lab staff have flatly denied the accusation.

The governments in China, the U.S. and Russia have all been accused of spreading false COVID-19 information in an effort to deflect attention from their mishandling of the crisis. There have been more than 3 million confirmed infections worldwide to date and more than 218,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.

On Tuesday, Zakharova said that Russia "cannot rule out that the Americans use such reference laboratories in third countries to develop and modify various pathogenic agents, including in military purposes," according to the Tass news agency.

She singled out the Richard Lugar Center for Public Health Research in Tbilisi, Georgia, where the U.S. military has been working with local forces in recent years. Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 and fought a brief war against the country in support of the self-proclaimed republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Zakharova said: "According to recent reports, top-ranking Pentagon officials have recently visited it to offer the Georgian authorities to expand the range of research." She added: "Naturally, we cannot ignore the fact that the Americans are developing an infrastructure with hazardous biological potential in the direct proximity to the Russian borders."

The Russian government, its allies and certain media organizations have frequently complained about the Tbilisi facility, claiming, without proof, that staff there conduct dangerous bioweapon tests and use unwitting human subjects. The Lugar Center has been subject to international inspections and there is no evidence that the facility develops biological weapons.

The Lugar Center is named after late Sen. Richard Lugar, who along with Sen. Sam Nunn spearheaded the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, designed to secure and dismantle weapons of mass destruction and their associated infrastructure, for example laboratories, in former Soviet states after the country collapsed at the end of the Cold War.

The program provided funding for efforts in Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. The U.S. was concerned that staff, equipment or weapons including pathogens involved in WMD programs might be co-opted by other states or non-state actors as a way to expand their arsenals, thus sought to repurpose them for more peaceful causes.

A State Department spokesperson told Newsweek that any allegation of bioweapon research at U.S.-linked facilities in former Soviet states "are nonsense and typical of Russian disinformation and propaganda campaigns."

"The Lugar Center was created to use state-of-the-art technology to help detect dangerous diseases before they turn into an outbreak," the spokesperson said. "The building was designed to meet U.S. and international standards for biosafety and biosecurity."

"The work being done at the Center is transparent, as evidenced by its collaborations not only with the United States, but also with international scientists from around the world, including those from the WHO, World Organization for Animal Health, World Bank, and European Union," the spokesperson said.

"As we have made clear on many occasions, the Lugar Center does not conduct any biological weapons research. Allegations to the contrary are entirely false."

This article has been updated to include comment from the State Department.

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Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang listens to a question during the daily press briefing in Beijing, China on March 18, 2020. GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images/Getty