Evidence Points to US Continuing Biological Research in Indonesia Despite Lab Ban
08:27 GMT 26.05.2022 (Updated: 16:42 GMT 26.05.2022)
As Russia launched a probe into US biological research in Ukraine, similar American activities in other parts of the world are now being looked into with extra scrutiny.
In April 2022, Indonesian news outlet Detik broke a story
about alleged violations of the country’s laws by US Navy personnel during the 2016 Pacific Partnership exercise in the West Sumatran coastal city of Padang. According to documents obtained by reporters, American naval surgeons performed operations on 23 local patients on board hospital ship the USNS Mercy without coordination with Indonesia’s Ministry of Health.
The ship’s personnel may have secretly exported blood samples taken from dozens of Indonesian patients and transported three rabid dogs from the area in West Sumatra, which is known as endemic territory for rabies – also without permission from the country’s government. Padang health officials also told Detik that the Americans wanted to obtain samples of the dengue fever virus from local mosquitoes.
These incidents reminded Indonesian reporters of the story of NAMRU-2 – a US Navy biological laboratory that existed in Jakarta from 1970 to 2009, when it was banned by the country’s Health Ministry for being “a threat to Indonesia’s sovereignty”.
The Jakarta Lab
Jalan Percetakan Negara is a busy, but narrow street in central Jakarta. In the evening hours, hundreds of commuters pass through this neighbourhood, which is known for its construction material shops and dozens of small food stalls on the sidewalks.
An outsider, and even many Jakartans, most likely could never tell that for 40 years, the building at Jalan Percetakan Negara 29 – a dimly lit house in the middle of an Indonesian government agency compound, was home to NAMRU-2 – an American naval bioresearch facility where dangerous pathogens and viruses were stored and worked with.
The US Naval Medical Research Unit (NAMRU) has its roots in Guam under the Rockefeller foundation. It was established
in 1955, while the NAMRU-2 detachment in Jakarta has been opened in 1970 “to study infectious diseases of potential military significance in Asia”.
According to Dr Siti Fadilah Supari, a cardiology specialist who served as Indonesia’s health minister from 2004 to 2009, the overall efficacy of the American research was questionable:
“Although they focused on malaria and tuberculosis, the results for 40 years in Indonesia were not significant”
, says Dr Supari. She added that the agreement
between Indonesia and the US on establishing the laboratory ran out in 1980 - “and then after that they were stateless”
However, it was not only the lab’s debatable performance that made Dr Supari concerned about the American facility:
“I only knew their lab is very closed. And the researchers were American Marines, all of whom had diplomatic immunity”, says Dr Supari. “We never knew what they were carrying in their diplomatic briefcases. There were also some researchers from Indonesia helping them”.
Dr Supari also mentioned the lack of equal involvement of Indonesian staff in the project as another reason for concern. But the possibility of obtaining specimens from infectious patients for research purposes and transporting them abroad by the American staff with diplomatic status was, perhaps, the biggest red flag for the minister. At the time, Dr Supari launched a fight against global health regulators and Big Pharma companies over the inequities of virus specimen sharing through World Health Organisation (WHO)-affiliated structures, with poor nations suffering from the spread of H5N1 (the Avian influenza).
In 2006, NAMRU-2, which had the status of a WHO collaborating centre, diagnosed a batch of H5N1 cases in Indonesia. The country asked the lab to share the samples with the US Centres for Disease Control (CDC), which was also affiliated with the WHO, specifically requesting that the Americans not transfer the material to anyone else. Nevertheless, according to several publications, the CDC gave them to a sequence database at the US Los Alamos National Laboratory, which was initially founded to design nuclear weapons. This fact angered the Indonesians, prompting fears that the specimens were being used for the Pentagon’s military purposes and adding more fuel to the fire. In the 2014 article
"Advancing science diplomacy: Indonesia and the US Naval Medical Research Unit" Frank L Smith III quoted a former Jakarta lab employee who said that by sharing the samples with Los Alamos Laboratory and with the Big Pharma, CDC practically “threw [NAMRU-2] under the bus”.
In April 2008, then Health Minister Supari paid a surprise visit to NAMRU-2, talking to the press about the lab’s lack of transparency and the fact that it doesn’t share the results of its work with the Indonesian government.
According to a man who requested to be referred to by the pseudonym “Henry” and who has been a journalist with one of Indonesia’s main media outlets for almost 30 years, Dr Supari’s campaign against the American military facility were making it into the national headlines, and so were other events related to it. Henry says that around the time when minister Supari started putting pressure on NAMRU-2, its building almost burned down. While the fire was quickly extinguished, the cause remains unknown to this day. He was assigned with covering the story, so he went to the location.
“I remember two Bule [‘Caucasian’, ‘foreigner’ in Indonesian – ed. Sputnik] men in the midst of a chaotic situation. They were in the distance and we couldn’t talk to them. They were not security, because security officers at the gate (we call them ‘anggota satuan pengaman’) - were Indonesians. We were not allowed by them to go beyond the fence of the compound, and could only see the facility from the distance”, says Henry. “It looked like the fire was at the administrative part of NAMRU, where all documents are kept. I didn’t pay much attention to this fact at the time, but in hindsight it may look almost as if someone wanted to hide something”.
From Jakarta to DC: The WikiLeaks Memos
Apparently NAMRU was very important to Washington. According to some of 3,000+ American diplomatic cables published
by Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks website in 2010, the US Embassy in Jakarta sent hundreds of updates to the US capital on NAMRU’s legal status, and the Indonesian government’s activities related to the lab’s operation.
In the spring of 2008, the US Mission and NAMRU administration even launched
“an offensive against misinformation” by organising a news conference on the lab’s activities. However, according to a memo
sent to the Department of State by then US Ambassador to Indonesia Cameron Hume, the Americans later wanted to abandon most of their public diplomacy in favour of a more targeted effort to influence key Indonesian politicians and parliamentarians in order to keep the lab running: “The best hope to keep NAMRU-2 in Indonesia is to convince key policymakers of its continued usefulness to both countries”,
As per WikiLeaks intercepts, minister Supari’s resistance had become a big problem for the US. She was mentioned personally in most NAMRU-related memos. On 12 June 2009, American diplomats even suggested that their DC superiors could help “manage” her by deepening health cooperation between the US and Indonesia, which could assist in saving the Jakarta lab:
“If managed correctly, Supari could accept NAMRU if she is assured of our genuine interest in developing a new research laboratory model (bigger and more comprehensive than NAMRU), she could then be helpful on visa extensions for NAMRU personnel so that negotiations on the broader engagement can begin,” says the memo
Nevertheless, despite pressure from the US, Minister Supari managed to close NAMRU-2 with support from Indonesia’s top diplomats and military’s top brass. To the day she considers the facility a “threat to national security”, adding that there are “several things that [she] can’t explain about [the lab’s] role in the avian flu pandemic, which was eventually cancelled”, but not going into further detail on the latter.
On 16 October of 2009, Supari wrote a letter to the US Government abolishing the 1970 agreement on NAMRU-2, and later the same year the Foreign Ministry sent an official note to the Americans saying that the facility should be shut down. The personnel’s Indonesian visas ran out in 2010 and all of the lab’s equipment was transferred to the US diplomatic compound.
Minister Supari left the office at the end of 2009. Her successor Endang Rahayu Sedyaningsih reportedly
had ties with NAMRU-2 in the past, but chose not to allow the official resumption of the lab’s activities in Jakarta.
Research in the Grey Zone: Beyond NAMRU-2 Era
In the final press release
about the 2016 naval exercise in Padang, the US Indo-Pacific Command (PACOM) only vaguely mentions something which may refer to medical manipulations uncovered by Detik’s reporters as “community health outreach events”, but does not say anything about rabid canines or human blood samples.
Henry happens to have been a visitor on the USNS Mercy in April 2005, when he nearly drowned during a tsunami in Pulau Nias in North Sumatra province. The Americans, who had deployed the ship to the area, invited him aboard to replace his broken glasses. Since Henry spoke English, they also asked for his assistance to find patients for US naval surgeons to operate on. He describes the process as basic:
“They brought most of their patients aboard from a hospital in Gunung Sitoli – the capital of Pulau Nias Regency, where they underwent screening - but not all of them. The officer asked me whether I can help them to find more patients for operations – uncomplicated ones, anything but brain surgery, because the ship is made of metal and they were unable to do MRI there. So, I went to a nearby village asking around whether other people needed assistance. And the Americans deployed their Sikorski SH-60 Seahawk helicopters to pick them up from the village, bringing them directly to the ship”.
As per Detik’s investigation, the procedure of selecting patients for USNS Mercy operations looked more sophisticated by 2016, with locally performed medical pre-screening at a stationary hospital in Padang being done in 100% of cases. Nevertheless, the authors wrote, citing sources, that the Americans still violated local laws, especially when it came to the transfer of infected specimens, and did not obtain “material transfer permission” before taking the samples abroad.
The journalists added that they are looking into possible further violations of the country’s health laws by the US Navy in Indonesia during the 2018 Pacific Partnership exercise in another location, Bengkulu province, but so far they haven’t found any evidence of such wrongdoings.
When asked whether, based on the findings of the Detik team, some forms of biological research by the Americans or their local affiliates for the benefit of the US may still be taking place on Indonesian soil, and whether the country’s government should investigate the matter, Dr Supari answered affirmatively:
“I think it’s true, the research activity still exists”, she said. “I can’t prove it, but, from what I read and hear, research activities are still going on in various forms of collaboration with research institutions and universities in Indonesia. I think the government should be aware of this”.
Padang was the final stop for the USNS Mercy during the 2016 Pacific Partnership drills, so it’s likely that shortly after this, the data collected from human blood sampling in Indonesia, along with the rabid dogs allegedly picked up in Padang, may have ended up in the ship’s US homeport of San Diego.
What the real purpose of these medical and biological research manipulations during a disaster response exercise was remains a mystery. It is also unclear whether the US has given up on its attempts to proceed with military-related biological research activities in the Southeast Asian country after the NAMRU-2 lab was banned.