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Romney, Gabbard feud on Twitter over US-funded biolabs in Ukraine

Former U.S. Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard (Gage Skidmore, Wikimedia Commons/Released)
March 14, 2022

Republican Utah Sen. Mitt Romney accused former U.S. congresswoman for Hawaii of spreading “treasonous lies” on Sunday after she shared concerns about deadly pathogens escaping from U.S.-funded biological laboratories in Ukraine amid Russia’s ongoing invasion of the country.

On Sunday, Gabbard, who is an active member of the Hawaii Army National Guard tweeted, “There are 25+ US-funded biolabs in Ukraine which if breached would release & spread deadly pathogens to US/world. We must take action now to prevent disaster. US/Russia/Ukraine/NATO/UN/EU must implement a ceasefire now around these labs until they’re secured & pathogens destroyed.”

In her video, Gabbard went on to say there are 25 to 30 “biolabs” in Ukraine and “according to the U.S. government,” are conducting research on dangerous pathogens.

“Ukraine is an active war zone with widespread bombing, artillery and shelling,” Gabbard added. “And these facilities, even in the best of circumstance, could easily be compromised and release these deadly pathogens.”

Gabbard went on to say that the pathogens could spread to other countries in Europe and the U.S. and cause illness and death, like COVID-19.

“These labs need to be shut down immediately and the pathogens that they hold need to be destroyed,” Gabbard said.

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) accused Gabbard of spreading “Russian propaganda” and “treasonous lies.”

“Tulsi Gabbard is parroting false Russian propaganda. Her treasonous lies may well cost lives,” Romney said.

Gabbard responded to Romney on Monday in a lengthy Twitter thread.

“.@MittRomney, you have called me a ‘treasonous liar’ for stating the fact that ‘there are 25+ US-funded biolabs in Ukraine which if breached would release & spread deadly pathogens to US/world’ and therefore must be secured in order to prevent new pandemics,” Gabbard began her response thread.

Last week, the DoD itself released a fact-sheet describing the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Program and a related program called the Biological Threat Reduction Program (BTRP). The fact-sheet stated BTRP has “invested approximately $200 million in Ukraine since 2005, supporting 46 Ukrainian laboratories, health facilities, and diagnostic sites” to reduce the risk of pathogens stemming from former Soviet Union biological weapons.

Later on in her Twitter thread, Gabbard also specifically referenced the DoD’s fact sheet on its CTR program, saying the “Pentagon Fact sheet (March 11, 2022) has numerous statements directly & indirectly confirming the existence of such biolabs.”

The DoD fact sheet further warned, “Russia propagates disinformation aimed at BTRP’s laboratory and capacity building efforts in former Soviet Union countries—falsely claiming that the U.S. Department of Defense support is used to develop biological weapons.” The DoD said, following the start of the Russian invasion, that it had “ordered the safe and secure disposal of samples” thereby limiting “the danger of an accidental release of pathogens should Russia’s military attack laboratories.”

Some U.S. fact-checking resources have already issued warnings about claims about biological research facilities in Ukraine. PolitiFact fact-checked a claim that “Russia is targeting U.S. biological weapons labs in Ukraine invasion” as “False.” In that fact-check, PolitiFact noted the U.S. Department of Defense does provide funding to Ukraine, through the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, to help reduce the threat of weapons of mass destruction left in the country after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Last week, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affair spokesperson Lijian Zhao also claimed the U.S. “has 26 bio-labs and other related facilities in Ukraine, over which the U.S. Department of Defense has absolute control.” Zhao further claimed, “All dangerous pathogens in Ukraine must be stored in these labs and all research activities are led by the U.S. side.”

The fact-checking outlet Lead Stories issued their own fact-check on a claim that referenced Zhao’s comments and went on to claim Russia “found over 30 biological labs (with evidence of bioweapons) in Ukraine formed by the Pentagon.” Lead Stories said many biological labs in Ukraine were established to decommission Soviet-era biological weapons. Lead Stories wrote the Russian government did not “find” these labs during the ongoing invasion of Ukraine, but instead already knew about them “as they were formerly part of the USSR’s” bioweapons program.

Despite the superficial similarities between Gabbard’s comments and the claims addressed by fact-checkers, the former Congresswoman did not claim that the U.S. was overtly controlling the labs or using them to make biological weapons. Still, Gabbard’s comments drew criticism.