In this issue, we once again debunked the Russian Ministry of Defense’s claims about “military-biological experiments” conducted in Ukraine at the Pentagon’s request. According to Russian officials, Ukrainians were studying the possibility of uncontrolled transmission of avian flu. Ukrainian bloggers also spread disinformation, claiming that COVID-19 is just the regular flu, and the full-scale Russian invasion proved the falseness of the pandemic.
With the support of the USAID Health Reform Support project, VoxCheck analyzes and refutes public health narratives spread in the information space of Ukraine, Belarus, and russia on a weekly basis.
Disinformation: A full-scale war showed that the pandemic was made-up
Ukrainian anti-vaccine bloggers Ostap Stakhiv and Serhii Hula commented on the news of the end of the COVID-19 pandemic. In particular, they stated that:
- Coronavirus is simply a type of flu that should not be feared;
- COVID-19 was invented to make money;
- Viktor Liashko, even as a sanitary doctor, claimed that healthy people did not need to wear masks;
- The pandemic ended when a full-scale war started in Ukraine;
- Vaccination was unnecessary, and now the World Health Organization (WHO) is quietly canceling it.
What’s the reality?
COVID-19 is not the flu. COVID-19 is a respiratory illness caused by the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. The flu is also a respiratory illness, but it is caused by different viruses (such as H1N1, H3N2, etc.) and not by a coronavirus. Coronavirus infection differs from the flu in terms of higher infectivity, lethality, and more serious and longer-lasting health consequences for individuals.
Coronaviruses are a large group of viruses that cause upper respiratory tract illnesses. Only 7 of them can be transmitted to humans. Scientists first discovered a coronavirus infecting humans in 1965, while the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus was only documented in late 2019. In contrast, the first major influenza pandemic occurred in 1918, and the virus that caused the disease was identified in 1933.
Viktor Liashko did not say that healthy people do not need to wear masks. In fact, during a briefing in March 2020, the then Chief Sanitary Doctor of Ukraine, Viktor Liashko, called on everyone to wear masks in public places. A mask protects not the wearer but the surrounding people from possible infection. Additionally, a mask reduces the distance over which an infected person spreads the disease-causing agent.
In April 2020, Liashko also recommended wearing masks: “Yes, we understand that a mask does not protect the person. It is not a means of individual protection. When there is a mask, the release of biological material that may contain the pathogen is reduced and does not reach one and a half meters but may only extend up to 10-15 centimeters. Therefore, in case of non-compliance with social distancing, a mask on the face of a person who may still be without symptoms but potentially infected reduces the risks of infecting others”.
According to the latest recommendations from the World Health Organization (WHO), masks should be worn in crowded places, enclosed or poorly ventilated spaces, and when in contact with people who have symptoms of COVID-19. Wearing a mask reduces the number of infectious particles that can be inhaled or exhaled, thus protecting both the mask wearer and the surrounding individuals.
After the start of the full-scale media invasion, there has been less coverage of the pandemic, but the disease has not disappeared. On May 5, 2023, the Director-General of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, announced the end of COVID-19 as a global health emergency (pandemic). He mentioned that thanks to vaccination, population immunity is increasing, and mortality rates are decreasing. However, he emphasized that the virus has not disappeared, and there is a risk of new variants emerging.
On May 9, 2023, the Chief Sanitary Doctor, Ihor Kuzin, announced that the Ministry of Health of Ukraine is considering the possibility of lifting the quarantine, while the basic preventive and anti-epidemic measures will continue to be in effect. He stated that an average of 6,500 cases of infection are recorded in Ukraine per week.
Kuzin emphasized that the coronavirus will not disappear and will become seasonal. Each region will respond to it as the epidemic threshold is reached. If the permissible levels of illness are exceeded, the quarantine measures will be strengthened.
After the start of the full-scale invasion by Russia, the coronavirus did not disappear either. In March 2022, the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine published statistics indicating that the average number of new infections in Ukraine was 5,057 per day, with an average of 79 new fatal cases per day. However, the agency noted that due to the Russian aggression, the collection and analysis of epidemic data became significantly more difficult, resulting in incomplete statistics on COVID-19 cases.
In July of the same year, doctor Ihor Kuzin mentioned that Ukraine was recording fewer cases of illness than during the pre-war period. However, this may be due to the fact that doctors are only registering cases of patients with severe illness who require hospitalization, while patients with mild or moderate symptoms are mostly left out.
According to WHO data, from April 24 to May 1, Ukraine registered 8,898 cases of infection, which is 18% lower than the previous week. During this period, 82 people died. Since the start of the full-scale invasion by Russia, a total of 6,981 people have died from COVID-19. In total, during the two and a half years of the pandemic in Ukraine, 5.5 million cases of virus infection have been recorded, with 112,000 cases being fatal.
Vaccination has become one of the main factors that have allowed to reduce the incidence of Covid-19 and end the pandemic. Vaccines approved by the WHO have undergone clinical trials. The vaccine helps prevent severe illness, hospitalization, and death.
Furthermore, the WHO does not plan to completely cancel vaccination. According to the Strategic Preparedness and Response Plan for COVID-19 for the years 2023-2025, vaccination against COVID-19 is planned to be integrated into routine vaccination. As announced by the Minister of Health of Ukraine, Viktor Liashko, a new vaccine will be developed for each circulating strain.
Disinformation: In Ukraine, there are experiments with the bird flu virus
Statements from the Russian Ministry of Defense are circulating online, claiming that in the interests of the Pentagon, the conditions for the uncontrolled transmission of bird flu were studied in Ukraine, particularly in the Kherson region. It is also alleged that the US Department of Energy recruited specialists in Ukraine with experience and knowledge in the field of weapons of mass destruction.
What’s the reality?
As part of the Biological Threat Reduction Program, Ukrainian scientists did collaborate with American colleagues on the project “Assessment of Risks of Spread of Specific Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza Agents Potentially Transmitted by Migratory Birds over Ukraine“. However, similar research is a common global practice to counter the spread of the virus in a specific area. Avian influenza has a negative impact on the natural ecosystem, increasing mortality rates among wild birds. It also poses a threat to public health as the virus can be transmitted from wild populations to domestic birds and from them to humans. The migration of birds and the spread of avian influenza viruses are also studied in Russia. The migration itself represents the “conditions of uncontrolled transmission” mentioned by propagandists.
Fakes about the secret US biolaboratory in Kherson appeared back in 2015. At that time, the candidate for the post of Kherson city mayor Tetiana Tomilina talked about her as part of her election campaign.
Tetiana Tomilina is a collaborator who sided with the occupiers during the full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia. She self-proclaimed herself as the “rector of Kherson University.” In 2015, local journalists and activists accused her of separatism based on her corresponding posts on social media. That same year, she became a co-founder of the public organization “Public Security and Development” together with Oleksandr Huliaiev, who in 2014 represented the nonexistent “Kherson People’s Republic” at the “Congress of Republics” in Yalta.
Later, in 2020, there was a mention of it after statements by former MPs from the now-banned pro-Russian party Opposition Platform — For Life (OPFL), Renat Kuzmin and Viktor Medvedchuk, regarding the operation of 15 laboratories in Ukraine, allegedly supervised by the Pentagon. The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) officially commented on the spread of fake accusations, stating, “In 2005, the Ministry of Health of Ukraine and the US Department of Defense signed a framework Agreement on the Prevention of the Proliferation of Technologies, Pathogens, and Knowledge that can be used in the development of biological weapons. Under this Agreement, a number of state laboratories located in the Odesa, Kharkiv, Lviv, Kyiv, Vinnytsia, Kherson, and Dnipropetrovsk regions were modernized (repair work was carried out, equipment was updated, consumables were purchased, etc.). We emphasize that these laboratories are funded from the state budget and are subordinate to the Ministry of Health and the State Service of Ukraine on Food Safety and Consumer Protection“.
Regarding the “recruitment of specialists in weapons of mass destruction“, it probably refers to the hiring of educational experts for practical training courses for the National Police, Security Service of Ukraine, and State Border Guard Service of Ukraine. The training took place with the support of the International Nonproliferation and Reduction of Threats Program of the US Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA). The practical seminars were designed to educate personnel from relevant agencies on how to detect potential dual-use items and prevent their movement.
This information piece was produced with the assistance of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), provided on behalf of the people of the United States of America. This article’s content, which does not necessarily reflect the views of USAID, the United States Government, is the sole responsibility of Deloitte Consulting under contract #72012118C00001.
The authors do not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have no relevant affiliations