Is the United States bent on developing a super “DNA” weapon to attack Russians?

That seemingly far-fetched hypothesis has been discussed after Vladimir Putin’s acknowledgement at the end of last month that American researchers were keen to collect biological information on people in Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo: Reuters
Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo: Reuters

Responding to a senior official’s complaint that the Pentagon may be collecting images of Russians by hacking into numerous CCTV and surveillance systems in the country, Putin laid bare an even more jaw-dropping claim – that people in different parts of Russia and from different ethnic groups were wanted for a “systematic and professional” harvest of DNA, fluids, organs and tissues, Russian News Agency TASS has reported.

The accusation centers on a recent US Air Force call for tender for biospecimen procurement: 12 ordinary human ribonucleic acid (RNA) samples, plus 27 fresh human synovial samples, of Russian or Europid descent, that must be collected in Russia.

Senior Russian officials and members of the State Duma have obviously become jittery after Putin confirmed a long-running rumour about Washington’s clandestine, eerie interest in Russian genes and bio-info.

Putin’s press secretary subsequently told reporters that the president was briefed by intelligence officials. But, the Kremlin remained tight-lipped when asked for more details.

“Don’t get scared. Let them do what they want, and we must do what we must [to stop them],” Putin was quoted as saying by Russian media.

Alexander Korobko, director of Russia’s DNA Project, has sent an open letter to the US Air Force questioning if it has been developing bioweapons or practizing eugenics.

In response, a US Air Education and Training Command spokesman noted that “the researchers are using the samples to conduct musculo-skeletal research aimed at identifying the different bio-markers associated with injury and were not targeting Russians with the study”.

It has been suggested that US funds have been backing bio-labs in countries neighboring Russia, including 13 in Ukraine, four in Georgia, two in Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, though there’s no evidence that these labs are involved in the collection of Russian DNA.

A conspiracy theory that the US military could be developing “superbugs” or a man-made pandemic targeting Russians has been stirred up by many respondents in a related survey by Rambler, Russia’s largest search engine and news portal.

Indeed, there has been greater interest in gene decoding, editing and modification over the past decade following the landmark accomplishment of human genome sequencing in 2003.

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Inside a DNA lab. Photo: Getty Images

Yet a professor at the Medical College of Georgia told Global Times the idea of inserting gene sections of high pathogenicity into the DNA of existing viruses or bacteria to slaughter a specific race or people of a specific country was fictitious – as all humans share predominantly similar genes despite differences in race and ethnicity.

“Members of tribes that never intermarry with outsiders may be prone to such a DNA ‘weapon’, but in today’s globalised world, the genes of people have become more mixed than ever.”

In his letter, Korobko also questioned whether the US tender was unscientific, as far as genetics go, because Russia is a massive country and people’s DNA varies from one region to another, often more widely than from country to country in Europe.