No, the US has not built a biological weapons lab at Kemri

kemri, lab tests, laboratory testing

‘Russian Embassy in Kenya’ has made a claim about a US defence agency that allegedly funded biological labs in Ukraine.

Photo credit: SHUTTERSTOCK

A Twitter account identifying itself as the ‘Russian Embassy in Kenya’ has made an extraordinary claim about a US defence agency that allegedly funded biological labs in Ukraine.

It says the US Defence Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) built a biological weapons lab at the Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri) that is still functioning and that Kenya is one of 30 countries where such labs exist.

“As per press reports, Kenya is one of the 30 countries where the US DTRA has supported the establishment of a biolab at ... Kemri. The lab was launched last year and is functioning. Are its activities harmless and purely in line with Biological Weapons Convention (BWC),” the tweet reads.

The Russian Embassy confirmed to the Nation that the Twitter account belongs to it. “Yes, this is the official account of the embassy, you can find [a] link to it at our website,” a spokesperson wrote.

On September 16, Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe commissioned a renovated state-of-the-art biomedical lab at the Central Laboratory Complex at Kemri, an event attended by Mr Eric Kneedler, the US Chargé d'affaires in Nairobi at the time, and other partners in biosecurity research.

Four centres at Kemri’s lab complex had received a major facelift, including the Centre for Biotechnology Research and Development, Centre for Microbiology Research, Centre for Virus Research and Centre for Traditional Medicine and Drug Research.

CS Kagwe explained that the facilities aim to strengthen research capacity, particularly in human resources and research infrastructure.

He said that “research is a key component of public health” and “medical research can have enormous impact on human health and longevity, and that the resulting increased productivity of the population contributes greatly to the national and global economy”.

Dr Daniel Mbinda, the chairman of the Kemri board of directors, said: “The modernised laboratories and other key strategic facilities that include the Sample Management and Receiving Facility (SMRF), two multipurpose conference rooms, laboratory offices and connector buildings have been renovated with the support of the USA through DTRA and the Cooperative Biological Engagement Programme (CBEP) Collaborative Project.

The DTRA/CBEP project is a collaboration between the US and Kenyan governments and focuses on cooperation in threat reduction.

The deal was signed by the US ambassador to Kenya at the time, Robert Godec, and the then Health Cabinet Secretary James Macharia “on July 24, 2015 when President Barack Obama visited Kenya.

The project also involved installing three new insectaries and two incinerators, renovating selected office spaces, and capacity building of Kemri personnel in line with biosafety and biosecurity requirements.

On Wednesday a Kemri staffer, who sought anonymity because they are not authorised to speak to journalists, told the Nation that the US government only partnered with Kenya to repair lab equipment and give the facility a facelift.

“We work with pathogens and they have to be protected from outsiders and potentially harming anyone. This place was upgraded and is now fitted with CCTV cameras and doors have access codes, which makes it impossible to gain access without any clearance and permission from those in charge. I work at Kemri and am not even cleared to go in there, let alone anyone else,” the staffer said.

DTRA did not touch level three biolabs at Kemri but only renovated level two, said Kemri acting Director-General Dr Evans Amukoye.

“They improved the virology labs and separated them from offices. We are now able to know how many pathogens come in using SMRF,” Dr Amukoye said.

“Soon we will be part of a team … that is heading to Geneva for a biological weapons convention so that we are more equipped and are aware of our responsibilities so that we [can] continue keeping Kenyans safe.”

DTRA dates back to 1942, in what is popularly known in the US as the Manhattan Project. After World War II, the Manhattan Project continued to support atomic weapons testing until the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 split the programme into two parts — the Atomic Energy Commission, known today as the Department of Energy, and the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project.

At DTRA’s inception, its mission was to develop weapons but it later expanded during the Cold War and eventually included non-nuclear weapons development.

The United Nations says biological weapons disseminate disease-causing organisms or toxins that can harm or kill humans, animals or plants.

“They can be deadly and highly contagious. Diseases caused by such weapons would not confine themselves to national borders and could spread rapidly around the world,” the UN says.

“The consequences of the deliberate release of biological agents or toxins by state or non-state actors could be dramatic. In addition to the tragic loss of lives, such events could cause food shortages, environmental catastrophes, devastating economic loss, and widespread illness, fear and mistrust among the public.”

This is why the global body has put in place a mechanism for dealing with biological weapons.

“The Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) effectively prohibits the development, production, acquisition, transfer, stockpiling and use of biological and toxin weapons. It was the first multilateral disarmament treaty banning an entire category of weapons of mass destruction (WMD),” the UN explains.

“The BWC is a key element in the international community’s efforts to address WMD proliferation and it has established a strong norm against biological weapons. The Convention has reached almost universal membership with 183 States Parties and four Signatory States.”