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Inside the Ukrainian facility at the heart of Russia's "biological war lab" disinformation ploy

Biological weapon conspiracy theory explained
Inside the Russian biological weapons conspiracy theory 03:20

Kyiv — From cholera to anthrax, Ukraine's Virology Reference Laboratory in Kyiv has housed some of the most infectious diseases known to humankind. Dr. Natalia Vidayko, the lab's chief researcher, led us through a maze of white walls and stainless steel equipment. Researchers in lab coats hovered over petri dishes, each containing genetic samples of diseases sent in for analysis. 

If you ask the Kremlin, the vials and Bunsen burners at the Ukrainian Health Ministry facility are all part of a sinister plot. 

On February 27, three days after President Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine, Russian officials claimed one reason they did it was because the U.S. was "filling Ukraine with biolabs, which were — very possibly — used to study methods for destroying the Russian people at the genetic level."

CBS News' Chris Livesay is led into Ukraine's Virology Reference Laboratory in Kyiv by Dr. Natalia Vidayko, the lab's chief researcher. CBS News

Despite a complete absence of evidence, the claim went viral on social media, eventually making its way onto Fox News, where host Tucker Carlson demanded answers. "What exactly were they doing in these secret Ukrainian biolabs?" he asked.  

Which is what brought us to the laboratory in Kyiv. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has called it a "biological war lab." 

But when we arrived at the entrance, the only security in sight was a geriatric German Shepherd named Rambo, who graced us with a lugubrious walk outside of his doghouse, and then walked back in. 

Rambo, the guard dog on duty outside the Ukrainian Health Ministry's Virology Reference Laboratory in Kyiv. CBS News

We were told we were the first journalists allowed inside since Russia's invasion. But the facility is routinely inspected by international agencies including the World Health Organization. 

Dr. Vidayko showed us state-of-the-art equipment for containing dangerous pathogens — not to make weapons, she told us, "but to test for diseases in patients." 

But that all changed when Russian forces invaded Ukraine on February 24, she said, when the shelling began.

"They bombed a building right nearby," the scientist told CBS News. 

From that day, the Ukrainian government ordered the lab, and others, to destroy all particularly dangerous strains, she said. 

"Because it was a very high biological risk," she said, noting that if the building was attacked, dangerous pathogens could have been released into the environment.

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She walked me over to the machine that technicians used to kill the diseases, known as an autoclave.

"They're completely destroyed," she repeated. 

But the viral conspiracy theory didn't die with them.

"This crazy fake," she lamented to CBS News. "There's no evidence, just blah blah blah." 

Nevertheless, a poll found that 26% of Americans believed Russia's baseless claim, and that includes some members of congress, like Republican representative Marjorie Taylor Green, who introduced a bill in March to ban U.S. funding of "bioweapons" in Ukraine.

Dr. Vidayko said she worried that, because so many people have bought the Kremlin's line, she and her colleagues could become targets.

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The Pentagon has warned that Russia could use her laboratory and others like it in a so-called "false flag" attack, in which Russian forces stage their own biological strike to blame it on Ukraine. 

"When we first heard these lies about bioweapons, we thought it was funny," Vidayko said. "But we're not laughing anymore." 

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