The Other Espionage in Russia

For those already exhausted with the cloak-and-dagger spy-murder mystery plots currently unfolding between London and Moscow, it seems that a fresh new controversy has hit the pages of the tabloids: Russia claims to have uncovered a sinister Western plot to deploy a biological weapon to make Russians sterile. Really. This planned assault on Russian virility, as detailed in a bioterrorism report from the FSB to the president, is being blocked by the institution of a ban by the Russian Federal Customs Service (FTS) on medical specimen exports, including human hair, blood, cells, organs, and other biological samples. The ban was imposed because of alleged bio-weapons research by the following organizations that receive specimens from Russia: Harvard School of Public Health, the American International Health Alliance, the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the US Department of Justice, the Swedish Karolinska Institute and Agency for International Development, and the Indian Genome Institute. These institutions deny any involvement in bio-weapons research. As Kommersant reports, this is no laughing matter – an export ban on specimens has serious costs to both patients and the economy:

As of May 28, the export of materials for clinical research and analyses is forbidden until further notice. This move could threaten the lives of dozens of patients in the country and completely paralyze clinical research trials being conducted by Western pharmaceutical companies in Russia, a business that is estimated to be worth $100-150 million annually. Representatives of the pharmaceutical industry told Kommersant yesterday that two courier firms, DHL and TNT Express, informed their clients yesterday that as of May 29 a decision by the FTS prohibits the sending of biological materials out of Russia. … According to data from TNT, every day around a hundred packages of biological materials are sent abroad by Russian hospitals for clinical analyses (they comprise the majority of biomaterials sent out of Russia), meaning that the ban on the export of biological materials will affect the health of thousands of Russian patients every month. Children’s Oncology Center deputy director Alexei Mashchan told Kommersant yesterday that “if this is true, it is a cannonball to the gut for us.” Much of the analyses that require the export of biological samples can only be done abroad, such as the selection of bone marrow donors, which is commonly done in German clinics. … Glaxo Smith Kline (GSK) spokesman Alexei Brevnov told Kommersant yesterday that “this decree will be a serious blow to our nation’s health – it will set it back years. It makes conducting clinical trials in Russia much more difficult.” According to Mr. Brevnov, GSK recently had an similar run-in with the Russian authorities over a pediatric vaccine trial in a private clinic in Volgograd: the local prosecutor’s office sued the company, alleging that the study was illegal, and pressed criminal charges against three doctors. In Russia, clinical trials are an obligatory step in the approval of any new drug for introduction into the Russian market.

One would assume that if the Russia’s enemies were so motivated to carry out such a heinous act, that they would select something of greater tactical efficacy than seeking to induce sterility. As widely reported in articles on Russia’s demographic crisis, it is arguable that fertility is already a serious homegrown problem (just like in Germany or Japan), and that Russia may already be facing depopulation without any foreign meddling. The Russian government is certainly not the only one to use a culture of fear as elections approach, but the ingenuity of pitching this threat as an attack on Russian manhood itself is breathtakingly clever. Update: Cyrill Vatomsky had a post up about this yesterday, and Siberian Light today.