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[FACT-CHECK] Did US-funded labs in Nigeria lead to monkeypox outbreak?

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The media space, especially social media platforms, was inundated with claims that the current spread of monkeypox was linked to at least, four United States biological laboratories in Nigeria.

Monkeypox in 2022 was first found on May 6 in the United Kingdom in a person with travel ties to Nigeria, which was where the initial cluster of cases was found. Monkeypox has never before spread so widely elsewhere since it was first discovered in Central and West Africa in 1970.

From May 18, cases were reported from an increasing number of countries and regions, predominantly in Europe and North and South America, Asia, Africa, and Oceania.


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As cases began popping up in different countries, so did unverifiable claims linking the monkeypox outbreak to it being manufactured in biological labs.

In a widely reported press statement, Nigeria became a target after the Russian government alleged that monkeypox was biologically made from, at least, four U.S.-controlled biological laboratories in the country.

At least, 60,000 confirmed cases have been reported from more than 100 countries and territories since the start of 2022.

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Background

Three weeks after the first reported case in Europe, the Russian government claimed that the new spread of monkeypox was linked to, at least, four U.S.-controlled biological laboratories in Nigeria.

The report linking biolabs in Nigeria to the spread of monkeypox was released during a Russian Defense Ministry press briefing by Chief of Russian Radiation, Chemical, and Biological Protection Force, Igor Kirillov, titled, ‘Briefing on the results of the analysis of documents related to the military biological activities of the United States on Ukrainian territory.’

Igor Kirillov
Chief of Russian Radiation, Chemical, and Biological Protection Force, Igor Kirillov Photo credit: Russian Defence Military

During the briefing, Kirillov claimed that the U.S. operated, at least, four biological laboratories in Nigeria and linked the current monkeypox outbreak in Europe to the alleged US-funded biolabs (US-financed facilities) in Abuja, Zaria, and Lagos.

He said, “According to the WHO report, the introduction of the West African strain of the causative agent of monkeypox originated in Nigeria, another state where the United States has placed its biological infrastructure.

“According to available information, there are, at least, four biological laboratories controlled by Washington in Nigeria.”

The report made headlines on social media platforms and some media houses in Nigeria, India, Iran, Russia and Europe.

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It was also shared on Twitter by pro-Russian accounts.

Two tweets were shared by AZ OSINT (@AZmilitary1), a Twitter user, on Friday, May 27, immediately after the Russian government made the announcement.

The first tweet, 1:43 pm, read, “☣️😱Smallpox of monkeys was brought from Nigeria, where, at least, four biolabs of the United States work, said Igor Kirillov, head of the radiation, chemical and biological protection troops of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation😱☣️”

The second tweet was a collage of images purportedly proving the existence of US-sponsored bio-laboratories in Nigeria, possibly linked to the recent monkeypox outbreak.

AZ OSINT tweets, which have now been deleted, are archived here and here.

Misinformation
Screenshot on 12/08/2022 00:34

“Russia Ministry of Defense published photos as evidence of the existence of bio-laboratories in Nigeria (they have released more material we hope to have time to translate it for you), related to monkey smallpox spreading. Currently, there are 4 🇺🇸biolabs in 🇳🇬👇”

The Twitter user shared a link to a Telegram post in the second linked tweet. The channel, иноорон оccии, is validated by Russia’s Defense Ministry’s verified Twitter handle (Ministry of Defense of Russia).

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The post on Twitter and Telegram elicited responses indicating that some believed the claims were true.

A check on Twitter and Facebook found the claim to have been widely shared.

Screenshot of tweets
Screenshot of tweets

The Russian government shared the claim without providing evidence that monkeypox was produced in a Nigerian lab.

According to the World Health Organization, there were 257 confirmed monkeypox cases and about 120 suspected cases in 23 nations where the virus is not endemic when the Russian government shared the claim on May 27, 2022.

Currently, at least, 60,000 confirmed cases have been reported from more than 100 countries and territories since the start of 2022.

Nigeria is not the first country Russia has accused of operating a United States-funded biological lab. The Russian Government had accused Ukraine and Georgia in 2018 and 2022, respectively, of operating biological laboratories with support from the United States.

Findings

Igor Kirillov’s claim was shared on the Russian Ministry of Defence Telegram channel, along with a graphical collage image of three lab equipment and a Nigeria map with Lagos, Abuja, and Kaduna locations.

Though the Russian government mentioned four U.S alleged controlled biolabs in Nigeria, the Lagos laboratory received no location, facilities, or equipment.

The collage image from Telegram
The collage image from Telegram

The collage images also included two buildings and three infected monkeypox human body images.

A Nigerian flag was also placed next to the title of the collage image.

The collage, originally in Russian, was translated using Google Lens, a Google image recognition technology designed to bring up relevant information about objects it identifies using visual analysis based on a neural network.

google Lens
Google Lens translation of the claim

Modular BSL-3 Laboratory, Zaria, Kaduna State

A reverse image search revealed that the equipment was part of the modular BSL-3 laboratory set-up in Zaria, Kaduna State, Nigeria, in 2010.

This was revealed in an article published in the African Journal of Laboratory Medicine and available on ResearchGate, titled, ‘Diagnostic system strengthening for drug-resistant tuberculosis in Nigeria: impact and challenges.’

modular BSL-3 laboratory
Modular BSL-3 Laboratory, Zaria, Kaduna State

According to the article, the medical equipment is from Movable BSL-3 containment laboratories delivered to Nigeria in 2010 by the United States President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) programme through the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland in Baltimore, Maryland.

United States deployed a modular, BSL-3 laboratory to support the national tuberculosis programme in drug-resistant tuberculosis detection and bio-surveillance for effective tuberculosis prevention and control.

It said the lab’s objective was to examine the impact and challenges of tuberculosis diagnostic capacity development for the detection of drug-resistant tuberculosis and bio-surveillance using a modular biosafety level 3 (BSL-3) laboratory in Nigeria.

Defense Reference Laboratory, Abuja

The first building image is the Defense Reference Laboratory in Abuja. The lab, according to the U.S. Military Research Program, is a multi-purpose laboratory for PEPFAR-supported research and diagnostics and serves also as a reference laboratory for USDOD/NMOD sites and Nigerian military hospital laboratories, which send samples for HIV Viral Load, emerging infectious diseases, and other PEPFAR supported laboratory investigations.

Defense Reference Laboratory, Abuja
Defense Reference Laboratory, Abuja

The laboratory is a collaboration between the United States Department of Defense and Nigeria’s Ministry of Defence via the Walter Reed Program-Nigeria and the Emergency Plan Implementation Committee.

Clinical Research Centre, Abuja

Clinical Research Center, Abuja
Street view of Clinical Research Centre, Abuja

The final image, according to Humangle, is the Clinical Research Centre (CRC) in Abuja, which was established to “support high-quality clinical research aimed at generating knowledge for the prevention, control, and development of countermeasures against emerging infectious diseases of public health importance.”

Experts, NCDC, U.S embassy’s responses to claim

In an email to experts at Meedan Health Desk, The ICIR asked if it is possible to manufacture monkeypox and use it as a biological weapon.

Meedan Health Desk responded it is possible, while it is possible that the monkeypox virus could be used in biological warfare. However, there is no evidence to suggest that current outbreaks of monkeypox are biological warfare or from a leak.

It said analyses of the genetic material from monkeypox cases in the current outbreak show that it is tied to an outbreak in West Africa, and is not manufactured.

Their response read in part, “According to the World Health Organization, biological and toxin weapons are either microorganisms like virus, bacteria or fungi, or toxic substances produced by living organisms that are produced and released deliberately to cause disease and death in humans, animals or plants.

“Monkeypox has the potential to be used as a biological weapon. However, there is no evidence that any past or current outbreaks of monkeypox are due to intentional manufacturing to use in this way. Analyses of the genetic material we have from the monkeypox cases in this outbreak show that the current outbreak is tied to a naturally-occurring outbreak in West Africa. These findings show that this outbreak is in no way manufactured.

“Monkeypox does have the potential to be used in this manner; viruses, including the monkeypox virus, can be cultivated in a lab, and have the potential to be released and spread deliberately. That being said, there is no evidence that this has occurred or may occur.”

In a fact-check, the BBC determined that there is no evidence that the latest monkeypox outbreak was caused by pathogens released from a lab, as suggested by the Russian government.

The fact that the virus’s genetic sequences can be traced back to a common West African strain “tells us this it is not something manufactured,” according to geneticist Fatima Tokhmafsha.

THE Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), in response to the claim shared with The ICIR, denied the Russian government’s claim linking the current outbreak of monkeypox to alleged United States-funded and controlled bio-laboratories in Nigeria.

It claimed that the Russian government’s statement was unsupported by evidence.

The US Embassy through the Information Specialist, Public Affairs Section (PAS) of the US Consulate General in Nigeria, Temitayo Famutimi, said reports that the United States was working with Nigeria to spread monkeypox were pure fabrication.

The statement said there were zero merits to any allegation regarding the use of US-assisted Nigerian laboratories in the spread of monkeypox. Furthermore, the statement added that Nigeria has no “US-controlled” laboratories.

Instead, the embassy said the US government has continued supporting Nigerian health authorities with technical assistance and funding to tackle disease outbreaks such as COVID-19 and monkeypox.

What experts are saying about Monkeypox spread

Monkeypox has its origin in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Nigeria, where it is endemic. The monkeypox virus usually does not spread easily between people.

The first human-reported case was diagnosed in the DRC in 1970, in a 9-month-old boy in a region where smallpox had been eliminated in 1968.

Since then, most cases have been reported from rural, rainforest regions of the Congo Basin, particularly in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and human cases have increasingly been reported from across central and West Africa. The virus mainly spreads through people exposed to infected animals, either through bites or scratches or preparing meat from wild game.

According to research, the number of monkeypox cases in the DRC has increased. From 2010 to 2019, there were more than 18,000 confirmed or suspected cases, up from roughly 10,000 occurrences from 2000 to 2009, and more than 6,000 suspected cases in 2020. According to the WHO, Nigeria has reported more than 400 confirmed cases and more than 1,100 suspected cases since 2017.

Individuals with a travel history to Nigeria have been linked to the current spread of monkeypox outside of Nigeria. The first cluster of cases was discovered in the United Kingdom in an individual with travel links to Nigeria.

Nigeria reported the first monkeypox case in 38 years when a professor of medicine and infectious diseases at the Niger Delta University in Nigeria, Dr. Dimie Ogoina in 2017, discovered it in an 11-year-old boy.

Ogoina blamed the spread on health officials in slowing down their search for new cases during the monkeypox outbreak in 2017.

Ogoina, in a report published by thr National Public Radio (NPR) in July, 2022, said the number of cases in Nigeria was not an accurate representation of actual cases.

“Over time, interest and attention to monkeypox just dropped. Surveillance declined. The number of cases we’ve had in Nigeria is not a true representation of actual cases because we are not doing sufficient surveillance,” he said.

Prominent Nigerian virologist, Oyewale Tomori, in a May 2022 article, said Nigerians probably did not know how much of the monkeypox disease they had.

He said, “In Nigeria, we probably don’t know how much of the disease we have because surveillance is not what it should be. We are definitely missing many of the monkeypox cases in the rural areas.

“All of the imported cases outside of Africa that have occurred since 2018 have been from Nigeria,” said Dr. Agam Rao, a medical officer at the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of High Consequence Pathogens and Pathology, in an article published by Infectious Diseases Special Edition.

According to the WHO, the recent cases are from the West African clade of monkeypox, which is relatively mild: only about 1 per cent of people who contract it die, compared to 10 per cent in the Congo Basin clade.

Six cases were identified among people who travelled from Nigeria to other countries between 2018 and 2021. Secondary infections occurred in two of these cases.

While in the US, the first case was identified in a man who travelled from Lagos, Nigeria, to Dallas. After that, another case occurred in the United States, which was also from a traveller from Nigeria.

Many of the people who have subsequently gotten monkeypox in the current outbreak have no history of recent travel to Africa or known exposure to an infected person. Cases have largely been identified among young men who have sex with men, leading experts to believe that the disease is being spread through skin-to-skin contact, perhaps from exposure to rashes and lesions during sexual activity, World Health Organization officials said.

In an interview with the Associated Press in May, a former head of WHO’s emergencies department, Dr. David Heymann, described the unprecedented outbreak of the rare disease monkeypox in developed countries as “a random event” that could be explained by sexual or close, physical contact at two recent mass events in Europe.

He said the spread of the disease was sexual transmission among gay and bisexual men at two raves held in Spain and Belgium.

“We know monkeypox can spread when there is close contact with the lesions of someone who is infected, and it looks like sexual contact has now amplified that transmission,” said Heymann.

Conclusion

The claim that monkeypox was created in a Nigerian lab is false because there is no evidence that current monkeypox outbreaks result from biological warfare or a leak. Genetic material from current monkeypox cases shows that it is linked to an outbreak in West Africa and is not manufactured.

Author profile

Olayinka works with The ICIR as the Social Media Manager, Reporter and Fact-checker. You can shoot him an email via oshehu@icirnigeria.org. You can as well follow him on Twitter via @BelloYinka72

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