Source: Arms Watch by Dilyana Gaytandzhieva
Leaked e-mails between the Lugar Center, the Pentagon biolaboratory in Tbilisi, the US Embassy to Georgia and the Georgian Ministry of Health reveal new information about the $161 million secretive US Government biological research program in this former Soviet country.
The data allegedly originating from the Ministry of Health of Georgia has been published anonymously on Twitter and on a forum for database leaks – Raidforums. Among the documents there are internal memos, official letters and detailed information about US government projects at the Lugar Center, funding and foreign business trips.
Arms Watch volunteers have analyzed the leaked data and discovered very interesting facts about the Center’s recent activities.
The Pentagon has planned to turn Georgia into its largest biological research center overseas, combining its military resources with the resources of the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Georgia.
Furthermore, the number of US projects and grants have increased as well as the number of US scientists deployed to the Lugar Center. The Pentagon-funded facility is planned to temporarily accommodate 16 CDC specialists from Atlanta, for whom Georgia will build a separate BSL-2 laboratory, administrative building and a campus near the Lugar Center. In addition, Georgia will become a regional CDC hub for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, internal documents reveal.
The Lugar Center already sparked controversy about possible dual-use research in 2018 when leaked documents revealed that US diplomats in Georgia were involved in the trafficking of frozen human blood and pathogens for a secret military program.
The Lugar Center is just one of the many Pentagon biolaboratories in 25 countries across the world. They are funded by the US Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) under a $ 2.1 billion military program – Cooperative Biological Engagement Program (CBEP), and are located in former Soviet Union countries such as Georgia (the motherland of former Soviet leader Joseph Stalin) and Ukraine, the Middle East, South East Asia and Africa.
Pentagon research on bioterrorism agents at the Lugar Center
US military scientists have been deployed to Georgia for research on bioterrorism agents at the Lugar Center, according to the new data leak. These bio-agents have the potential to be aerosolized and used as bioweapons. Among them anthrax, tularemia, Brucella, Crimean-Congo Hemorrhagic Fever, Hantavirus, Y. pestis (causing the disease plague).
The US military biological research projects in Georgia have been funded by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA). According to internal data, American and Georgian scientists are currently working on the following DTRA projects in the Lugar Center:
Project 1059: Zoonotic Infections with Fever and Skin Injuries in Georgia
The project includes isolation of new orthopoxviruses in humans, rodents, domestic and wild animals in Georgia, and collection of rodents (as a natural reservoir for this virus) for their further study.
Duration: 01/11/2015-31/10/2018 (extended to 2020)
Project 1060: Characterization of the Georgian National Center for Disease Control (NCDC) Strain Repository by New Generation Sequencing
Description: characterization and genome research on 100 strains from four endemic species: Y. pestis (causing the disease plague), B. anthracis (anthrax), Brucella, and F. tularensis (causing the disease tularemia).
Funding: $ 518,409
Project 1439: Molecular Virological Research in Georgia
Description and objectives:
- Identify and characterize Hantavirus and Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever virus (CCHFV) strains by molecular methods;
- Characterize and study genetic diversity of Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever virus and hantavirus strains isolated from rodents and ectoparasites;
- Serological examination of febrile patients with Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever and hemorrhagic fever with renal syndrome;
- Collection of rodents and ectoparasites (ticks, fleas);
Project 1497: Molecular Epidemiology and Ecology of Yersinia Species in Georgia and Azerbaijan
Description: 1) Ecological research on rodents in Kerb on the Georgian-Azerbaijani border 2) Isolation of different strains of Yersinia; 3) Molecular screening of collected rodent and flea samples. 4) A comparative analysis of the genomes of Yersinia strains obtained during the fieldwork; 5) Spatial analysis of the distribution of Yersinia strains.
Duration: 01/09/2017-31/08/2018 (extended to 2022)
DTRA Projects in Georgia
Project 1742: Risks of bat-borne zoonotic diseases in Western Asia
Duration: 24/10/2018-23 /10/2019
In 2017 the US Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) launched a $6.5 million project on bats and coronaviruses in Western Asia (Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkey and Jordan) with the Lugar Center being the local laboratory for this genetic research. The duration of the program is 5 years and has been implemented by the non-profit US organisation Eco Health Alliance.
The project’s objectives are: 1. Capture and non-lethally sample 5,000 bats in 5-year period (2017-2022) 2. Collect 20,000 samples (i.e. oral, rectal swabs and/or feces, and blood) and screen for coronaviruses using consensus PCR at regional labs in Georgia and Jordan. According to the project presentation, Eco Health Alliance already sampled 270 bats of 9 species in three Western Asian countries: 90 individual bats in Turkey (Aug 2018), Georgia (Sept 2018), and Jordan (Oct 2018).
Watch: sampling a bat “EcoHealth Alliance and Georgian scientists sampling a bat for coronavirus research in 2018 (Facebook, Keti Sidamonidze)”
Coincidentally, the same Pentagon contractor tasked with the US DoD bat-research program – Eco Health Alliance, USA, also collected bats and isolated coronaviruses along with Chinese scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. EcoHealth Alliance received a $3.7 million grant from the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) to collect and study coronaviruses in bats in China from 2014 to 2019.
Project 1911: Ricketsia and Coxelia infection surveillance in Georgia and Azerbaijan
(US federal grant HDTRA1-19-1-0042 awarded to NCDC-Georgia)
Duration: 23/09/2019 – 22/09/2022
Despite the official claims of Georgia and USA that the Lugar Center is under the full control of the government of this Caucasus country internal documents show otherwise. Not only has the Pentagon funded biological research projects but it has also paid all the expenses for security and maintenance including utility bills – water, gas, electricity, and cleaning. Tasked with the operational and scientific support to the Lugar Center is USAMRU-Georgia, a special unit deployed to Georgia by the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR). WRAIR has paid: $524,625 (2016-2018), $650,000 (2017-2019) and $1,062,400 (2017-2021) for utility bills, and a further $158,050 (2016-2017) and $322,000 (2018-2021) for security guards.
The Pentagon has also awarded a private US contractor, Technology Management Company (TMC) an $8 million contract for science services to support USAMRU-Georgia in the Lugar Center (2016-2021).
WRAIR projects at the Lugar Center
Tularemia research on soldiers
The Pentagon unit USAMRU-Georgia has conducted extensive research on tularemia involving Georgian soldiers, scientific papers reveal.
Tularemia is a rare infectious disease that typically attacks the skin, eyes, lymph nodes and lungs. Tularemia, also called rabbit fever or deer fly fever, is caused by the bacterium Francisella tularensis. It is categorized as a category A bioterrorism agent. Tularemia was weaponized for mass aerosol dissemination by the US Army in the past, according to a recently declassified military report.
Tularemia is one of the bio-weapons that the US Army developed in the past. Source: 1981 US Army Report
900 volunteers (soldiers and civilians) were recruited for the DTRA project GG-19 “Epidemiology and Ecology of Tularemia in Georgia” from 2014 to 2017. Blood samples were collected from those volunteers and tested for tularemia.
According to the study, 10 soldiers (2%) of the 500 solders tested had antibodies for F. tularensis. The seropositive soldiers were men, the majority of whom were between 30 and 39 years of age. Seven cases had current residences in known endemic areas (i.e. Kakheti, Samtskhe-Javakheti, Kvemo Kartli, Shida Kartli, and Tbilisi). Three were from areas without previously known F. tularensis transmission (i.e. Imereti).
Of the 783 residents approached to participate in this study, 35 (5.0%) volunteers had antibodies to F. tularensis.
While the civilian volunteers were all residents of two areas with naturally occurring foci of tularemia in Georgia, the military personnel were soldiers visiting Georgia’s military hospital. The study does not provide any explanation as to why soldiers were enrolled in this project nor how exactly they contracted the disease in the army.
Project GG-19: Tularemia in Georgia
Furthermore, Georgia has asked the US Embassy for assistance for the construction of a second military hospital in the country, according to leaked correspondence between local health officials and the US Embassy to Tbilisi.
Below is Google translation in English of this correspondence:
CDC regional hub
The US Government has launched a parallel civil program in Georgia implemented by the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Leaked e-mails between the US Embassy to Tbilisi and Georgian health officials reveal that CDC has planned to set up a regional office for Eastern Europe and Central Asia in Georgia. The US Embassy and CDC have requested additional office space for 16 employees. Currently the CDC staff are working inside the Lugar Center.
CDC regional hub for Eastern Europe and Central Asia in Georgia
Interestingly, the Georgian health officials do not ask about any further information or clarification as to what this new foreign hub is going to do in their own country. Instead, Georgia’s Ministry of Health has planned the construction of a new BSL-2 laboratory, conference hall and campus near the Lugar Center with a loan from the European Investment Bank, according to a letter to the finance minister of Georgia leaked on Raidforums.
Arms Watch could not independently verify the authenticity of this letter as we did not find it in the leaked files. We have further analyzed the ministry’s internal data and discovered the following CDC projects in Georgia:
Project 1320: Antimicrobial Resistance Project
Duration: 01/09/2016 -29/09/2020
Project 1440: Introducing or Expanding the Use of Influenza Vaccine Outside the United States
Duration: 30/09/2016 – 29/09/2019
Project 1441: Influenza Surveillance Outside the United States
Duration: 30/09 / 16-29 / 09/21
Project 1446: Strengthening New Generation Sequencing Capacities for Hepatitis C Surveillance in Georgia
Duration: 01/07/2017-30 /06/2018
Project 1447: Samples collection under the Hepatitis C Elimination Program in Georgia – Bio-Bank
Objective: The aim of the project is to store samples collected under the Hepatitis C program for future scientific work
- 20,000 plasma/serum samples
- 6,000 serum samples from the 2015 National Seroprevalence Survey of Hepatitis C and B
- 1,000 blood samples from blood banks
- 500 blood samples from patients with terminal liver disease
Project 1456: Strengthening the micronutrient deficit monitoring system in Georgia
Duration: 01/09/2017 – 31/08/2018
Project 1457: Genetic peculiarities of hepatitis C virus in Georgia and its role in the Georgian Hepatitis C elimination program
Objective: Evaluate morbidity and mortality associated with Hepatitis C virus
Project 1532: Strengthening, detection, response and prevention of diarrhea outbreaks in Georgia
Duration: 30/09/2017 -29/09/2020
Project 1533: Strengthening Immunization and Vaccination Control System
Duration: 30/09/2017 – 29/09/2020
Project 1534: Respiratory Disease Surveillance
Duration: 30/09/2017 – 29/09/2020
Project 1535: Enterovirus surveillance Georgia
Duration: 30/09/2017 -29/ 09/2020
Project 1536: National Laboratory Quality Control Program in Georgia
Duration: 30/09/2017 -29 /09/2020
Project 1537: South Caucasus Field Epidemiology and Laboratory Training Program
Duration: 30/09/2017 -29 /09/2020
Project 1538: Fever of unknown etiology caused by arboviruses in the Black Sea region – clinical specimens will be shipped to the CDC Laboratory for analyses
Duration: 30/09/2017 – 29/09/2020
CDC Projects in Georgia
In conclusion, the United States has been consistently developing its laboratory facilities in the Caucasus. Why has the US Government spent billions of dollars on such biolaboratories and projects abroad instead on the health of its own citizens?
Scientists with diplomatic immunity
Furthermore, why have US scientists working at the Lugar Center been given diplomatic status and immunity to research deadly pathogens and insects in Georgia? Diplomatic immunity is a principle of international law by which foreign government officials are not subject to the jurisdiction of local courts and other authorities for their activities. Hence, US scientists could even perform illegal experiments in Georgia without being prosecuted as they have diplomatic immunity.
P.S. Arms Watch is currently analyzing all leaked data. Due to the large volume of information, we will publish more documents in another article soon. If you want to support Arms Watch, please go to the Donation page or Become Volunteer. Thank you!
Dilyana Gaytandzhieva is a Bulgarian investigative journalist, Middle East correspondent and Arms Watch founder. Over the last years she has published a series of revealing reports on weapons supplies to terrorists in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Her current work is focused on documenting war crimes and illicit arms exports to war zones around the world.