Kremlin Accuses Foreign Agents of Collecting Russian DNA

The Kremlin, Russia’s centre of government, is alleging that their citizens’ DNA is being collected by foreign agents and sent abroad for analysis, according to a report published yesterday by the BBC. When speaking to Russia’s Human Rights Council, President Vladimir Putin described the collection as ‘systematic and professional.’ On Tuesday last week (31/10), a Kremlin spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, confirmed that Russian special services possessed evidence that such DNA collections were occurring.

This isn’t the first time that this idea has been raised in Russia. In July this year, Russian news agency RT reported that the US Air Education and Training Command (AETC) were collecting 12 RNA samples and 27 synovial fluid samples from Caucasian Russian citizens. Capt. Beau Downey, a spokesperson for the AETC, told Russian news that the samples were being collected as part of a continuing project involving ‘locomotor studies to identify various biomarkers associated with trauma.’

“The request [by the research centre] did not specify where the samples should be received from, but to continue the study, similar samples were required. Since the supplier originally provided samples from Russia, suitable for the initial group of diseases, the control group of the samples should also be of Russian origin,” he said at the time. “The goal is the integrity of the study, not the origin [of the samples].”

Despite the American claim that the samples are solely being used for biochemical research, the Russian media has quoted scientists who are speculating that the DNA collection could be being done with the intention of using the samples in biological warfare research. These accusations come after a series of heightening tensions between the USA and Russia, and have led to some Russian MPs arguing that new state legislation needs to be brought in that allows them to control access to Russian DNA.

“The fact that our citizens’ fluids, organs and tissues are being collected is evidence that the US has not stopped its aggressive military programme,” alleged Gennady Onishchenko, a Russian MP who formerly headed Rospotrebnadzor, a state agency for conducting sanitation checks on imported food. He is also the main politician pushing for the Kremlin to introduce new ‘biological security’ legislation.

“I’m not saying that it is about preparing a biological war against Russia. But its scenarios are no doubt being worked on. That is to say, in case the need suddenly arises,” wrote Franz Klintsevich, First Deputy Chairman of the Federation Council’s Committee for Defence and Security, in a statement on Facebook. “It is also no secret that different ethnic groups react differently to biological weapons, hence the collection of the biological material from Russians living in different geographical locations. In the west, everything is done extremely scrupulously and is verified up to the tiniest detail.”

It is known that during the Cold War, both the USA and the Soviet Union had researchers working on lethal biological agents that could be weaponized against the other. Ultimately, no attacks were launched, but the mutual threat remained, and there are now concerns that this alleged DNA collection is the first stage of a new kind of warfare. RIA Novosti, a state-operated domestic news agency, quoted a Russian geneticist, Valery Ilyinsky, as theorising that biological weapons may be developed that are capable of exploiting genetic differences between ethnic groups.

Ethnic Bioweapons

Written with significant contributions from T. Patrick Hill, Bioethicist and Associate Professor at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, Rutgers University. 

This isn’t the first time that worries about an ‘ethnic bioweapon’ have been raised. In 2007, Russian newspaper Kommersant reported that the Federal Customs Service of Russia had established a ban on export of human biosamples for fear that foreign organisations were developing genetic biological weapons. Several organisations were named as suspects, including American institutions like the Harvard School of Public Health.

Similarly, The Atlantic published an article in their November 2012 issue that reported that the US government was taking measures to protect then-President Barack Obama’s DNA from foreign powers for fear that it would be used against him. At the same time, the government was allegedly collecting DNA samples from other world leaders, presumably to act as a ‘nuclear deterrent’ against personalised bioweapons being used against the President.

While they currently remain strictly theoretical, the idea of ethnic bioweapons has raised concerns around the world for decades. Some genetic variants have been identified as being population-specific (or appear to occur at a much higher rate in a certain population), and if a lethal compound could be developed that targeted that specific genetic variant, it could potentially be used as a selective weapon of mass destruction.

Clearly, such a weapon would come with significant ethical considerations, as well as conflicting with a number of legal precedents. While ethnic cleansing is not specifically forbidden by any international treaty, forcible action against a single ethnic group is considered a crime against humanity by both the International Criminal Court and the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. Purposeful military action against civilians, which an ethnic bioweapon would likely entail, is also forbidden by the Fourth Geneva Convention that was ratified in 1949.

An argument can also be made that by taking a person’s DNA without their consent, you are stealing their property, as laid out by the human right of autonomy (a person’s right and ownership of their own body). All biological samples used for research have to be taken with the donor’s ‘informed consent’, a term which means the donor has to have a clear understanding of what the associated data will be used for. The idea of informed consent is something which has restricted genomic research by limiting access to previously donated samples, as the original donor didn’t give explicit permission for their data to be used in each study. In this particular case, it has to be assumed that any donor did not give their consent for their data being used in weapons development and thus, the ‘donation’ is invalid. Even in cases where DNA is unavoidably left on surfaces (such as on used cutlery or a glass the person has drank from), the ‘sample’ remains the property of the original source, as it was not willingly given up.

Another issue that would need to be addressed is self-defence. The freedom to defend oneself with reasonable force is a human right, and legislative systems around the world have laws that enable it. In the case of an ethnic bioweapon, however, even people who hadn’t directly submitted their DNA (with or without permission) would be entirely defenceless, perhaps permanently so.

Further, should the idea of ethnic bioweapons become more concrete, it is likely that the use of DNA for legitimate purposes (such as clinical research or treatments) would rapidly cease. Many people are already hesitant about allowing sharing of their genomic data and if there was a risk of the information being used to design a personalised weapon, the percentage of people unwilling to donate would almost certainly rise. Arguably, in such a scenario, it would also be unethical to share data at all, even for research purposes, as there would always be a risk that the data would be used maliciously.

Historically, once a new kind of warfare becomes obtainable in one country, the rest of the world tries to follow shortly after. In 1945, only two nuclear weapons were known to exist and both were owned by the United States. Five years later, the Soviet Union had five of their own, and five years after that, the United Kingdom had fourteen. As of 2014, nine countries were known to possess nuclear weapons, which totalled around 16,000 weapons. If the first ethnic bioweapon ever is produced and shown to work as feared, it is likely that the same pattern would be followed and their numbers would increase exponentially.

At this stage, it is very important to remember that the threat of ethnic bioweapons is still very much theoretical; there is currently no evidence that such a weapon can be created, and maybe they never will be. However, it is also important to consider the potential risks that collecting and sharing genomic data may entail. The last few decades have seen dramatic advancements in the field of genomics and there’s been a corresponding spike in the quantity of genetic information that is available. This growth has been responsible for improved disease understanding, better preventative measures, and more effective clinical treatments, but we also need to consider the impact it has had on our ‘biosafety’. This is not to say that we shouldn’t be trying to drive the field forwards or that collecting genomic datasets is something to be avoided, but simply reaffirms the need for stringent data security measures and, perhaps, self-policing within the genomics community, such as we are already seeing with the use of CRISPR in human embryos. Our progress in genomics has been incredible and should be celebrated; we just have to be aware that there are risks to consider too.