Are the “heirs” of Unit 731 still active and developing biological weapons in Ukraine?

We came across this Facebook post being shared by the Russian embassy in Singapore:

The post comes with a caption talking about “Japanese Unit 731” which was “responsible for research of biological warfare” and how Singapore was once a place for “Japanese militarists” to develop biological weapons.

The caption then goes on to claim that the activities that happened at Unit 731 are still happening in Ukraine, and questions why the US appears to be “trying to hide the activities of their labs in Ukraine and to prevent the verification mechanism for BWC (Biological Weapons Convention)”.

Along with the post comes 4 infographics which the Embassy purports to be “proofs” of their claim.

It is important to note the rather emotionally-charged tone of the post, which is jarring for the official Facebook page of an Embassy.

Unit 731 in Singapore

First off, the post referenced an article on The Straits Times published on 14 February 2022. The author is probably referring to this particular article titled: “Cultivating smallpox, plague: S’pore was a major biological warfare centre during WWII”.

In it, the article reported that Singapore was “one of five major biological warfare centres operated by the Japanese during World War II (WWII)”, and that the labs here “not only bred rat fleas and used them to spread the bubonic plague to enemies, but also cultivated smallpox virus, malaria parasite and tetanus bacteria”.

In another article about Unit 731 in Singapore by the National Library Board, we also read that the Singapore branch, know as OKA 9420, was set up just days after the Fall of Singapore on 15 February 1942, and was run by some of Japan’s top doctors and scientists. Singapore was even the Southeast Asian headquarters of Unit 731, along with other units in the Malayan towns of Tampoi in Johor and Kuala Pilah in Negeri Sembilan.

Therefore, it is indeed true that Singapore was once housing labs that developed biological weapons for the Japanese.

US-run bio labs making biological weapons?

Drawing a link from this piece of history to present times, the post then brings forth a rather familiar rhetoric – that there are shady US-run bio labs in Ukraine (and the rest of the world) that are developing biological weapons.

We have done two factchecks debunking these claims, one of which even involved a Facebook post shared by former Singapore foreign minister George Yeo.

For the sake of those who have not read either of the factchecks, while it is true that there was indeed a treaty signed in 2005 between the US and Ukraine which aimed to stem the threat of bio-terrorism, it is false that these labs are run by the US military and that they are developing bioweapons.

In fact, as pointed out by Snopes, the Ministry of Health of Ukraine and the Department of Defense of the United States of America’s agreement dated in 2005 was reportedly to “stem the threat of bio-terrorism by placing safeguards on deadly pathogens dating from a Soviet-era biological weapons program”.

A more recent factcheck by PolitiFact clarified that while there are indeed labs in Ukraine backed by the United States, the European Union, Canada and the World Health Organisation (WHO), these labs “work with a number of pathogens, including the ones that cause anthrax, plague and hemorrhagic fever in humans” and “study viruses that affect birds and pigs”.

The US Defense Department had even said on 11 March that when the Russian attack began, “the Ukrainian Ministry of Health responsibly ordered the safe and secure disposal of samples. These actions limit the danger of an accidental release of pathogens should Russia’s military attack laboratories”.

It is also important to note that the claims about US military-run have been lurking since 2020, even before the Russia-Ukraine invasion happened.

Looking through the infographics that were posted on the Embassy, we noted that one of them referenced Global Times, a China-based daily tabloid owned by People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party’s flagship newspaper.

When we did a search with the keywords “global times us biolabs”, we found the sources of two of the 4 infographics posted – the one about the “US’ bio-web” and the other about US-funded bio labs raising public health concerns.

The infographic about the US’ bio-web brings up the US Cooperative Biological Engagement Program (CBEP), and frames the narrative by alleging that “many [have] questioned the US’ inconsistent responses regarding [US-funded bio-labs reportedly discovered in Ukraine]”, and that there are “wide concerns over its labs’ potential risks and safety loopholes”.

For some background information, the CBEP began in November 1991 after the fall of the Soviet Union as a US threat reduction and nonproliferation effort, and is engaged with nearly 30 countries in Africa, Europe, the Middle East and South Asia, and Southeast Asia.

CBEP division chief Dr. Lance Brooks explained that CBEP “[helps] partners safeguard and secure any biological material they may have for public health purposes [and] to give them the capability to detect, diagnose and report incidents focusing on weapons of mass destruction, related biothreats and bio material”.

CBEP’s partners also include WHO, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the US Agency for International Development and other international organisations to help countries develop their capacities to detect biothreat materials.

“Anywhere you have bad guys and biological material that could be used as a weapon, that’s essentially where we have determination to go. [And when CBEP works with a country,] we make sure their facilities are secure and they work safely with materials so they don’t have an accidental release, and securely so terrorists can’t get their hands on materials,” Brooks added.

Therefore, just like the oft-cited “US-run bio labs in Ukraine” claim, the international labs that the CBEP is working with appears to be more for research purposes and detecting biothreats as compared to creating biological weapons.

Once again, it is curious as to why this recent post by the Russian embassy in Singapore seems to be harping on the same claims that have been debunked multiple times, and why they have also used infographics created by a non-Russian publication.

It is, thus, false that there are US-run bio labs all around the world that are creating biological weapons.

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