Threat Reduction Program Extends Reach to Ukrainian Biological Facilities

William Huntington

U.S. cooperation with Ukraine under the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program was expanded Aug. 29 with an agreement to use U.S. CTR funds to improve security for pathogens stored at biological research and health facilities in the former Soviet republic.

Under the agreement, CTR funds will for the first time flow directly to projects aimed at securing pathogen strains and sensitive biological knowledge within Ukraine. The United States also will work to improve Ukrainian capabilities to detect, diagnose, and treat outbreaks of infectious diseases, as well as determine whether outbreaks are natural or the result of bioterrorism.

The agreement was signed during the visit to Kiev of a high-level U.S. delegation led by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and Senator Barack Obama (D-Ill.).

Among the facilities in Ukraine intended to receive security upgrades are those once linked to the Soviet-era anti-plague network, which continue to store libraries of naturally occuring pathogens for the purposes of research and public health. Andy Fisher, spokesperson for Lugar, told Arms Control Today on Sept. 15 the anti-plague facilities “were threats and they are threats,” given the risk that poor security could allow terrorists access to pathogens. Fisher also cited the possibility that outdated operating procedures and equipment could result in the unintentional leakage of pathogens from these facilities, endangering the public health of the region.

Cooperation under the new agreement will not be limited to physical security over pathogens. Funds also will be available for the peaceful employment of scientists whose skills and financial insecurity could render them potential targets for states or independent groups looking to acquire bioweapons capabilities. In addition, the agreement includes provisions for cooperation between U.S. and Ukrainian epidemiological laboratories in diagnosing disease outbreaks. Toward that end, pathogens from Ukrainian health and research facilities will be shared with U.S. partner laboratories. Under a CTR agreement with Azerbaijan, the United States last month also received a transfer of pathogens from similar facilities in that former Soviet republic.

As a first step toward implementation of the agreement, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) will conduct an assessment of biological facilities in Ukraine to determine what sites will receive assistance. Funds within the current DTRA budget will cover the assessment phase; additional implementation funds could be appropriated in fiscal year 2007 and beyond. As the Aug. 29 agreement falls under the established CTR framework, neither Congress nor the Ukrainian Rada will need to provide further authorization before implementation begins.

Negotiations on the Aug. 29 agreement spanned more than a year. One administration official who requested anonymity told Arms Control Today that inter-Ukrainian political and bureaucratic hurdles were surmounted by a combination of strong U.S.-Ukrainian relations and the presence of the high-level U.S. delegation. A press release from Lugar’s office specifically credited then-Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko with breaking a “log jam within Ukrainian government bureaucracy.”