The head of a U.S.-funded biolab in Tbilisi, Georgia has spoken about how the facility is battling Russian disinformation and conspiracy theories as it tests for coronavirus in the country.

On the outskirts of Tbilisi, staff at the U.S.-funded Lugar Research Center are helping to limit the spread of COVID-19 in Georgia by testing hundreds of samples and turning results around in under 24 hours. 

The lab, funded by $350 million in American taxpayer dollars, has been at the center of Georgian media coverage for weeks. But for years prior to this pandemic, it’s been the subject of media attention for a different reason – as a key target for Russian disinformation campaigns.

In January, the lab activated its emergency response unit, and quickly focused its resources on testing for COVID-19. When Russian and Chinese state media began claiming the coronavirus is the product of a U.S. military bioweapons operation, one Russian outlet, Kremlin-backed RenTV, went further: it attempted to pin the pandemic to the Tbilisi Lugar Lab. 

“This is propaganda. What can we do?” said Paata Imnadze, director of the lab in an interview with Coda Story. He added that the coronavirus outbreak may now play a part in shifting Georgian attitudes towards the center. “For me it’s  more important that the majority of our population will now see why we need it.”

Russian military expert Igor Nigulkin was one of the first Kremlin figures to push conspiracy theories linking the disease to the US military. “We will soon see who coronavirus is directed against,” said Nigulkin on Ren-TV in January. “It can be beneficial for American corporations that are developing these kinds of new diseases just for profit. Or maybe for the Americans themselves, because America is the only country that has 400 military biological laboratories around the world.” 

A reporter on Ren-TV, which reaches 115 million viewers, then singled out Tbilisi’s Lugar lab as a potential source of the virus.

The Lugar Research Center is a U.S.-funded lab outside Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo by Sophiko Vasadze.

When Coda Story visited the lab, technicians were busy testing samples of COVID-19. “It’s not the first time journalists have visited the center – one time, all of Russian TV was here,” Imnadze told me as we watched technicians testing samples through a thick glass window. “Of course the majority of them showed nothing – and if they showed something it was just the opposite of what we told them.”

Asked how he felt about the constant onslaught of disinformation targeting the lab, Director Paata Imnadze shrugged. “It doesn’t affect me. But it does affect people who still believe propaganda. We’re waiting for the next propaganda activity from our neighbor.”

Conspiracy theories about the work done at the Lugar Lab have persisted for years. Coda Story previously wrote about the lab in 2018 when the Russian Defense Ministry claimed the facility was a secret U.S. bioweapons project, posing a threat to neighboring Russia’s security. Kremlin-backed media also floated conspiracies that the lab is a “nest of viruses,” illegally testing on Georgian citizens and responsible for events as diverse as flu outbreaks, Ebola, and the Skripal poisonings

It’s been a source of frustration for the lab’s directors and Georgia’s disease control officials. 

“I do not like this question. The source of this disinformation is one country – you know which country it is, yes?” said Amiran Gamrekildze, Head of the National Center for Disease Control. “If you can nominate another country except this one, our big neighbor, then I will answer this question. Everybody agrees that the Lugar lab is for public health research, and nothing to do what our big neighbors are manipulating.” 

The U.S. government built the $350 million lab in 2011, with the aim of limiting the spread of disease in the region, and dealing with deadly pathogens left over from the Soviet Union’s biowarfare program. 

The lab’s high levels of biosafety and advanced technology are part of what makes it a target for Russian disinformation. 

In recent months, the lab has been crucial in quickly testing for the coronavirus in Georgia. “For tracking the virus, it’s very important to have results as quickly as possible,” said Imnadze. “The technology we have here is very unique for this region,” he said, adding that the lab was starting to carry out sequencing work, contributing to broader international research on the virus’s behavior.

While the lab’s employees are fighting on two fronts, in Georgia at least, attitudes towards their work is changing. 

“There’s always been a big question mark about the Lugar Lab,” said Sandro Bregadze, the leader of the extreme-right Georgian March party, previously one of the loudest Georgian voices calling for the lab’s closure. “When something is secret there are always doubts – are they working in the Lab on some kind of biological or chemical weapon?” But, Bregadze added, seeing the work the lab had been doing to combat coronavirus in recent months, he was grateful. “I think that the Lugar laboratory plays a very important role in the fight against the virus,” he said. “I want to thank the lab for doing such a good job.”

At the time of writing, there are 34 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Georgia. Just a few hundred miles away from coronavirus-hit Iran, Georgia’s outbreak is currently under control. “We’re in response and containment mode,” the lab’s head of emergency response, Ana Kasradze, said. “We hope we’ll keep the rate very low.”

The World Health Organization is clear on how to mitigate the spread. “We have a simple message for all nations: test, test, test,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Monday.