Russia has raised its concerns over attempts by the U.S. military to collect DNA samples from Russian nationals, noting the potential use of such biological samples for the purpose of creating new genetic warfare weaponry.
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The U.S. Air Force has sought to calm the Kremlin's concerns, noting that the samples would only be used for so-called “research” purposes rather than for bioterrorism.
Addressing Russian reports, U.S. Air Education and Training Command spokesperson Captain Beau Downey said that his center randomly selected the Russian people as a source of genetic material in its ongoing research of the musculoskeletal system.
Commenting that his center was simply conducting “locomotor studies to identify various biomarkers associated with trauma,” Downey noted that the center needed samples matching a first set of samples that contained the “initial group of diseases,” which were of Russian origin. Thus, “the control group of the samples should also be of Russian origin.”
However, the usage of Russian tissue samples in the USAF study fed the long-brewing suspicion that the Pentagon is continuing in its hopes to develop an alleged “biological weapon” targeting specifically Russians.
In comments delivered to Russia’s Human Rights Council on Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin questioned U.S. intentions in its studies of Russian genetic material.
“Do you know that biological material is being collected all over the country, from different ethnic groups and people living in different geographical regions of the Russian Federation?” Putin asked.
“The question is – why is it being done? It’s being done purposefully and professionally. We are a kind of object of great interest,” he added.
“Let them do what they want, and we must do what we must.”
Putin has raised similar concerns in the past.
"In the more distant future, weapons systems based on new principles (beam, geophysical, wave, genetic, psychophysical and other technology) will be developed. All this will, in addition to nuclear weapons, provide entirely new instruments for achieving political and strategic goals," then-Prime Minister Putin wrote in an editorial for Rossiiskaya Gazeta on Feb. 20, 2012.
Presidential spokesperson Dmitry Peskov also confirmed that Russia's intelligence agencies have documented the collection of genetic material by nongovernmental organizations across the Russian Federation.
“Some emissaries are really carrying out such activities, representatives of (NGOs) and other bodies. Such cases were registered, and security services, the president naturally has this information,” Peskov said Tuesday.
Former U.N. biological weapons commission member Igor Nikulin likewise confirmed to RT that the collection of genetic samples from Russian population groups has a history predating the recent attempts.
“Such attempts were made back in the '90s when there was a Human Genome program, then there were various programs in the 2000s too … under different pretexts, including the most noble, but for some reason all this happens in the interests of the U.S. (Armed Forces), and this raises suspicion,” Nikulin said.
“Samples of Europeans of the Slavic group, mostly Russians,” tend to be the most desired samples. “Blood samples are taken for analysis, and if an organization is foreign, what they are doing with the results is always unknown,” he added.
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Biological weapons or so-called “ethnic weapons” targeting certain people with a shared genetic code while leaving others unharmed have long been the subject of research by certain countries.
Nearly two decades ago, alarm bells were raised after it was reported that Tel Aviv was hoping to develop an “ethno-bomb” in reaction to Iraq's development of biological weapons.
“Scientists (in Israel) are trying to use viruses and bacteria to alter DNA inside living cells and attack only those cells bearing Arabic genes,” U.S. technology magazine Wired reported in 1998.
“The task is very complex ... But according to the report, the Israelis have succeeded in isolating particular characteristics of certain Arabs, 'particularly the Iraqi people,'” Wired noted.
"Morally, based on (Jewish) history, and our tradition and our experience, such a weapon is monstrous and should be denied," Israeli parliament member Dedi Zucker told the Sunday Times.
Reuters later reported that, according to British scientists, it was possible to develop such weapons given the advances in genetic mapping.
A year later, UNESCO warned in a report titled “Genetic Weapons: A 21st-Century Nightmare?” that biotechnology research could be creating new roads toward unlocking such nightmarish technology.
"It will unfortunately be possible to design biological weapons of this type when more information on genome research is available," said then-head of science and health policy at the British Medical Association, Dr. Vivienne Nathanson.
In 2004, a report by the British Medical Association titled Biotechnology, Weapons and Humanity II, warned that the design of such weapons was fast “approaching reality,” and could entail genetic bombs containing anthrax or bubonic plague that would activate when exposed to a targeted group.
"The problem is that the same technology being developed to create new vaccines and find cures for Alzheimer's and other debilitating diseases could also be used for malign purposes," the study's author, Malcolm Dando, said.