A conspiracy theory that the US and Ukraine were making bioweapons has been spreading for weeks.
The theory was boosted by Russian and Chinese officials, and prominent right-wing figures in the US.
The conspiracy theory has circulated heavily in QAnon communities online.
A conspiracy theory that the United States and Ukraine were attempting to create biowarfare weapons spent weeks floating around far-right media outlets, pro-Russian Telegram channels and QAnon communities in the early days of Russia's invasion. But quickly these unfounded claims found their way to primetime cable news and received millions of views on popular YouTube shows.
Fox News host Tucker Carlson, comedian turned YouTube host Russell Brand and numerous other pundits have added fuel to a conspiracy theory that previously only proliferated in Russian state media and far-right message boards such as 4chan. The claims have gotten loud enough that U.S. and European officials have in recent weeks repeatedly pushed back against what they have described as a campaign of disinformation.
While speaking to the Senate Intelligence Committee on March 10, the Director of National Intelligence in the US, Avril Haines, called the conspiracy theory a "classic move by the Russians" that's consistent with longtime "efforts to accuse the United States of sponsoring bioweapons."
But the conspiracy theory persists. Kremlin officials have doubled down on the claims, while major right-wing figures and users in far-right chats online continue to discuss it and add new elements to the specious narrative. The episode shows how fringe conspiracies enter the mainstream, experts say, and how they can linger despite no evidence supporting them.
Beatriz Buarque, a conspiracy theory researcher and doctoral fellow at the Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right, told Insider that the theory has had such wide reach because it offers a narrative for the invasion that appeals to people with a distrust of American institutions.
Conspiracy theories "satisfy human desire for explanations, often reducing complex events to a battle between 'good' and 'evil,'" Buarque said. "Especially during moments of great uncertainty, they tend to thrive because they provide a sense of orientation."
The biolab conspiracy gets a boost from Russian officials and media influencers
The conspiracy theory began to spread nearly immediately after Russia invaded Ukraine. The hashtag #USBioLabs trended on Twitter on February 24 after the now-suspended user WarClandestine wrote a thread claiming without evidence that Russia was attacking Ukraine to destroy biological laboratories in the country, according to the fact-checking website Snopes. Politifact also covered the theories, which it has deemed false and based on a faulty understanding of programs aimed at reducing the threat of outbreaks.
Although the United States has assisted Ukraine via the U.S. Department of Defense's Biological Threat Reduction Program (BTRP), which works to counteract disease outbreaks and detect pathogens, there is no evidence of a military or weapon-oriented biological program in the country. The BTRP has included upgrading multiple laboratories in Ukraine and building two new ones, according to the US Embassy in Ukraine's website.
But Russia's false framing of the invasion as an attack on western elites using Ukraine to produce bioweapons has been a natural fit for far-right conspiracists to embrace, Buarque said.
"To many far-righters, western governments and mainstream media are deceiving," Buarque said. "Vladimir Putin explicitly expressed the same views while announcing the military operation."
The theory received even more widespread attention in early March after Russian officials parroted and expanded the claim.
Igor Konashenkov, a Russia Ministry of Defense spokesperson, claimed without evidence on March 6 that Russian forces had discovered "a US-financed military biological program," according to Russian state-owned news agency TASS. Russia's foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova repeated the claim on Wednesday and alleged that Ukraine was developing biowarfare capabilities. Meanwhile, China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian also echoed Russia's conspiracy earlier this month and made claims about U.S. biolabs operating in Ukraine while saying that the U.S. should disclose its "biological military activities."
On China's microblogging platform Weibo, hashtags relating to the conspiracy theory have been viewed at least 180 million times, according to The Washington Post.
Russian and Chinese officials and media have offered no verified evidence for their claims, which Ukraine and United States officials have denied and fact-checking organizations have debunked. Instead, experts and U.S. officials say that this is part of a longstanding Russian disinformation campaign aimed at justifying its invasion of Ukraine.
European Union foreign spokesman Peter Stano said on March 9 the Kremlin's credibility is "very doubtful and low" and that Russia has "a track record of promoting manipulative narratives about biological weapons and alleged 'secret labs.' Meanwhile, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki called Russia's claims "false" and "preposterous" on Twitter.
The White House has claimed that the theory is being used to justify the Kremlin's invasion, while suggesting that Russia could itself use chemical weapons — which the Geneva Protocol banned from use in warfare after World War I — and then blame Ukraine.
Conservative media outlets and other pundits have framed the White House denials as part of a cover up, selling the conspiracy as illicit knowledge that authorities don't want the public to know about. Fox News host Tucker Carlson has repeated the conspiracy theory multiple times on air and claimed the US is lying about not manufacturing biological weapons in Ukraine. On Thursday night's show, he echoed a Russian propaganda report that claimed Hunter Biden, a frequent target for conspiracy theories, was involved in the creation of biolabs in Ukraine.
Many of the top conservative news podcasts also discussed and supported the conspiracy theory, according to a Brookings Institute report, with several dedicating multiple episodes to the claims.
The comedian Russell Brand made similar statements on YouTube, encouraging viewers not to trust "propagandist narratives" circulated by the "mainstream media" about laboratories in Ukraine. The episode received over 1.7 million views since airing in early March. Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has a history of spreading extreme conspiracy theories, echoed Russia's claims without evidence as well and on March 17 introduced a bill to Congress to "stop taxpayer funding of bioweapons."
Russian propaganda has a history of spreading biological warfare claims
Caroline Orr Bueno, a behavioral scientist and disinformation researcher, told Insider that the Kremlin's biolab narrative is the latest in a long history of Russian disinformation operations concerning biowarfare.
Russia's biological conspiracy theories date back to at least the 1980s, Bueno said, when the Soviet Union's KGB began a campaign to propagate the false claim that the United States created the HIV/AIDS virus and claimed it was the result of military scientist experiments. Since then, Russian claims of U.S. bioweapons have become frequent Kremlin talking points.
"There have been a number of subsequent allegations involving other viruses and laboratories, including in 2016, when Russia falsely accused the US of constructing secret biolabs to manufacture biological weapons in Georgia and Kazakhstan," Bueno said.
The biolab conspiracy has also circulated heavily in QAnon communities, Bueno said, featuring in far-right Telegram chats and among QAnon groups. The theory has also spread among members involved in the so-called "Freedom Convoy" trucker protest in the United States. Multiple right-wing publications with a history of spreading baseless conspiracy theories, including Alex Jones' InfoWars, have additionally published stories on the topic.
QAnon adherents have picked up the Russian bioweapon narrative and given it "an American twist," Bueno said. One version of the conspiracy theory in QAnon circles, according to Bueno, claims that Putin's invasion is also targeting child traffickers and deep state enemies, possibly with Donald Trump's help.
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