How The Soviet Union Successfully Blamed the US for Spreading A Deadly Pandemic
On 17 July 1983, a small, seemingly insignificant article appeared in the pro-Soviet Indian newspaper, Patriot.
The article was based on a letter received by a “well-known American scientist” who remained name-less. The article was titled: “AIDS may invade India: Mystery disease caused by US experiments”.
In the article, the author cited some publicly-known facts about AIDS and some publicly-known facts about the US biological warfare program. However, his message was one that, until then, wasn’t raised by anyone else.
The alleged American scientist claimed that AIDS was a result of a Pentagon’s experiment held at Fort Detrick; the US Army’s biological warfare base. The article claims that American scientists were sent to Africa and Latin America to collect samples of different viruses and that genetic engineers later combined these viruses into a super-virus in order to be used as a bio-weapon.
The article didn’t make much of an influence. Back in 83', AIDS wasn’t a concern in India, and although cleverly mentioning the fierce foe Pakistan in the text, the bold claim didn’t seem to make much of an impact.
Two years passed, AIDS was still a major concern and kept spreading across the world.
Meanwhile, a new leader took office in Moscow, a dominant and dynamic Mikhail Gorbachev. The US-Soviet relations were still, to say the least, rocky. The Americans blamed the Soviets for breaking the Geneva convention by producing illegal bio-weapons. And so the KGB decided to reinitiate “Operation Infektion” — the popular name for what was formally known as “Operation Denver” (and by some as “Operation Vorwarts II”).
On September 7, 1985, a letter was sent from the KGB to their Bulgarian counterparts. This letter was later described by Western officials as “the smoking gun”. It opens with these lines:
“We are conducting a series of [active] measures in connection with the appearance in recent years in the USA of a new and dangerous disease, “Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome — AIDS”… The goal of these measures is to create a favorable opinion for us abroad that this disease is the result of secret experiments with a new type of biological weapon by the secret services of the USA and the Pentagon that spun out of control”
The KGB then asks for help and collaboration, citing alleged “facts” that were, mainly, published in the original Patriot article.
While the letter shows the covert efforts of the KGB, the operation eventually resurfaced publicly as well. On 30 October 1985, the Soviet newspaper Literaturnaya Gazeta, a popular KGB disinformation outlet, published an article named “Panic in the West or What Is Hiding behind the Sensation Surrounding AIDS”. The article written by Valentin Zapevalov was constructed in an identical method to that detailed in the step-by-step guide provided by the KGB in the letter to the Bulgarians.
Zapevalov relied on the Indian Patriot article and added a few new bits of information allegedly “proving” that AIDS was lab-made in the US, and experimented on drug addicts, homosexuals, and homeless people. Same as in the Patriot letter, the false information was coated with many publicly-known details about AIDS and the US bio-weapons program.
The “journalistic” attempts were clearly not enough. The Soviets were seeking a more prestigious stature to their claims.
With the help of their East German partners, the Stasi, the KGB spotted Professor Jakob Segal. An East German biophysicist, Segal was a perfect choice. His contribution to the operation was immense. Together with his wife, Dr. Lilli Segal, and with a fellow retired professor, he wrote a 47-page report titled: “AIDS: Its Nature and Origin”.
The three authors disputed the commonly accepted approach that AIDS was originated in Africa. Segal will later enthusiastically champion an approach saying that the claim AIDS originated in Africa was not based on science but on racism.
Segal’s report claimed AIDS was entirely lab-created by combining different viruses. The authors claimed this was all done as part of biological warfare experiments on inmates held by the US government.
While the extent of the involvement of the KGB or Stasi in Segal’s work is yet unknown, it is clear that the Soviets had a major part in widely distributing the report. The Soviets referred to Segal as a French scientist, although he only spent a few years in France as a runaway Communist-Jew from Nazi Germany.
As part of a brochure titled “AIDS: USA home-made evil, NOT out of AFRICA”, Segal’s report was circulating in the Conference of NonAligned Nations held in Zimbabwe in September 1986. Representatives from 100 third-world countries attended, with a high-volumed coverage from the international press. Segal’s report made quite an impression all over the world.
The Soviet plan was finally kicking into high gear. Segal’s report was quoted in dozens of countries, and theories grew wild.
Some claimed that AIDS was invented by the US as an ethnic weapon against black people. Other theories blamed Americans for sending AIDS-infected condoms to African countries.
In Nigeria, a newspaper claimed AIDS was spreading due to rich Americans testing polio vaccines on poor Africans. The damage to American-African relations was very significant.
At some point, the conspiracy theory was so hard to ignore that some major media outlets in the west, even in the US, covered it. The disinformation continued to spread.
The American response was modest, to say the least. A part-time group of volunteers from the government called, “Truth Squads”, were assigned with exposing and debunking the Soviet claims. Kathleen Bailey, the deputy assistant of the Secretary of state, held a press conference, and a thorough report was compiled. Hardly a measure that could stop the lies which were, by then, already circulating at full speed.
During the late 80’s AIDS began spreading rapidly through the Soviet Union. Soviet scientists were keen on cooperating with their American counterparts and exchanging information. The Americans declined. The secretary of state Shultz confronted Gorbachev in what he later described as a “good heated exchange”.
The Soviets needed American knowledge to fight the disease. The mounting pressure took its toll. Days after confronting Secretary Shultz, and reading the American state department’s report, Gorbachev apologized to President Reagan.
Publically, the Soviet Academy of Sciences disavowed the claim that AIDS was lab-created. The Academy's president stated in an interview that “not a single Soviet scientist, not a single medical or scientific institution, shares this position”.
Today, the consensus held by the majority of experts is that AIDS, through HIV, originated in chimpanzees in Africa.
Most experts believe hunters came into contact with chimpanzees infected with SIV, an immunodeficiency virus found in chimps. The SIV transferred to humans, then mutated into HIV and started spreading across the world.
And yet, the conspiracy theory stands. A Rand corporation surveypublished in 2005 found that 27% agreed that AIDS was produced in a government laboratory. 16% said AIDS was created to control black people. 15% agreed that AIDS is a form of genocide against African-Americans.
The US and Russia are still, engaged in a disinformation war, getting even more fierce and complex due to the rise of social media platforms.
So many things have changed, but many have stayed the same.