MOSCOW -- An outspoken former chief Russian sanitary inspector has suggested that the United States could be infecting mosquitos with the Zika virus in the Black Sea area as a form of biological warfare against Russia.
In comments to the BBC Russian Service on February 15, Gennady Onishchenko said that Russian scientists have identified a surge since 2012 in the kind of mosquito that carries the virus in Abkhazia, a breakaway Georgian region that borders Russia on the Black Sea coast.
“This worries me because about 100 kilometers from the place where this mosquito now lives, right near our borders, there is a military microbiological laboratory of the army of the United States,” Onishchenko, who is now an aide to Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, told the BBC.
“The Pentagon did not build a military biological base to protect Georgian children from measles,” the health official continued.
He was apparently referring to a biological research facility in ex-Soviet Georgia that was built by the U.S. Defense Threat Agency (DTRA) in 2011 and handed over to the Georgian National Center for Disease Control for operation and ownership in 2013.
The facility is part of an effort to address dangers “to U.S. and global health security posed by the risk of outbreaks of dangerous infectious diseases,” according to the U.S. Embassy. But Russian officials and media have frequently suggested its purpose is nefarious.
The Zika virus has spread explosively across the world, particularly in South America, and although it often causes only mild illness, it has prompted major global concern because of its link to a birth defect called microcephaly.
A technician demonstrates equipment during a media tour of a biological research facility built by the U.S. Defense Threat Agency in Tbilisi in 2011. (file photo)
Onischenko’s comments on February 15 came as Russia’s public health agency said it had registered its first known case of Zika.
Authorities said a woman had been vacationing in the Dominican Republic and was diagnosed with Zika after returning to Russia. The virus was said not to have infected her family or fellow passengers on her flight home.
Onishchenko's comments mark a rare return to prominence since he was dismissed in 2013 by Medvedev and made a government aide.
As Russia' chief sanitary doctor since 1996 and head of the consumer protection agency Rospotrebnadzor since 2004, Onishchenko oversaw several politically charged bans on foreign products -- measures that Kremlin critics said were blatant attempts to strong-arm neighbors into cooperation with Moscow.
The prohibitions included bans on wine from Georgia and Moldova and stiff restrictions on the import of fruit and vegetables from the European Union in 2011.
He also showed a fondness for conspiracy theories.