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Science Comes to a Halt in Ukraine, at Risk in Russia

The Russian invasion into Ukraine that began a week ago has forced Ukrainian scientists to abandon their labs and is putting research in Russia in peril.

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Anna Azvolinsky

Anna Azvolinsky is a freelance science writer based in New York City.

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Mar 4, 2022

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On Monday (February 28), the fifth day of Russia’s military assault on Ukraine, Alla Mironenko—a physician-scientist and virologist and head of the Influenza Laboratory Ukrainian Center of Influenza and Acute Respiratory Infections Ministry of Health in Kyiv, Ukraine—drove the five kilometers to her laboratory with her husband. “I usually walk, but it is not possible now,” she told The Scientist by telephone later that day. A lone security guard let her in the laboratory building. The laboratories were empty, the heat turned off. Mironenko’s husband waited for her while she did a sweep of the lab. Although the lab does quite a bit of cell culture work, luckily, at the moment, they didn’t have any cells growing. Mironenko checked that the laboratory was in order, closed all of the windows, watered the plants in her office and those of her colleagues, and unplugged the centrifuges and other instruments.

New multiplex PCR kits that allow for simultaneously assaying the presence of the influenza virus and SARS-CoV-2 were lying on the lab bench. The kits had arrived on February 22 and 23, and Mironenko and her lab members had read the instructions and planned out experiments starting February 24. But then the invasion of Russian troops into Ukraine began.

Over the past several weeks, Russian military forces had positioned themselves along Ukraine’s borders. At sunrise, on Thursday, February 24, they launched an invasion. Reliable reports suggest Russian forces and munitions are targeting both military and civilian targets. Russian troops have since advanced to major Ukrainian cities, including the capital Kyiv; Kherson, in Southern Ukraine, became the first city to fall to Russian forces yesterday (March 3). The Ukrainian army and civilian volunteers have been fighting, resisting the Russian assault. As many as one million people in Ukraine have left, escaping to neighboring Poland and other countries as refugees.

Ukraine has more than 31 universities with biological laboratories and more than 1.5 million college students—including more than 76,000 international students, according to the Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine. While the international science community has expressed support for Ukrainian colleagues—including efforts such as Science for Ukraine, which seeks to collect and disseminate opportunities for scientists displaced by the invasion—countless academic careers and decades of research hang in the balance.  

The Scientist reached out to researchers in Ukraine and Russia to hear how the conflict is affecting them so far.

Watch and wait

On Thursday morning, waking up to the news that Russian troops had invaded Ukraine and were moving toward the capital, Mironenko said that she felt conflicted. “I spoke to my colleagues, and we all asked, ‘What should we do? Should we go to work?’” Mironenko recounts. They all stayed home, watching news that a Russian-fired rocket hit a residential building on the outskirts of Kyiv, and hearing explosions throughout the day. One lab member had left the populated city for the countryside but everyone else, as far as she knew, was still in Kyiv. Mirnonenko says she knows of colleagues and their children harboring in basements and bomb shelters in the city of Kharkiv—the country’s second largest city and home to more than 35 universities and 300,000 students—as Russian missiles have been firing on city buildings and troops are surrounding the city.

Mironenko’s biggest concern for the lab is that a power outage could compromise the building’s deep freezers that store reagents, samples—careers’ worth of work. “If the power goes out, that will ruin everything.” For now, the laboratory is intact, if unused, and there have not been news reports of power outages so far. The European Union announced on Monday that it urgently plans to link Europe’s electrical system to Ukraine’s electric grid.  

On Monday, Mirnonenko’s usually quick drive home took much longer due to the roadblocks and checkpoints peppered along the city’s bridges and roads. She and her husband live on the second floor of their building, and as of Wednesday, were not planning on going to bomb shelters or their building’s basement. “If things settle down, I will go back to the lab, but right now there is no urgency—we don’t process clinical diagnostics samples. . . . The entire city is under curfew, and I can do some work from home for now.”

The roads to Kyiv are all blocked, so leaving right now is not an option.

—Natalia Bezdieniezhnykh, R. E. Kavetsky Institute of Experimental Pathology, Oncology and Radiobiology

Meanwhile, Mironenko has helped to clean out a local air raid shelter, stood in an hour-long line at the pharmacy, and gone to her local supermarket—which was finally open on Monday following a weekend-long curfew, and even had fresh baked bread. “There is no restocking so the shelves are becoming more empty, but we are still able to buy food for now.” If the war continues, there is a looming concern that imported and local food supplies will be threatened.

Natalia Bezdieniezhnykh, a Kyiv-based oncology researcher who studies the role of the epithelial-mesenchymal transition in cellular transformation and therapeutic resistance at the R. E. Kavetsky Institute of Experimental Pathology, Oncology and Radiobiology, has also stayed in Kyiv with her family—her three-year-old child and husband. In text messages in Russian to The Scientist, she describes constantly shuffling back and forth from a basement bomb shelter due to the city’s air raid alerts. Bezdieniezhnykh, who was set to return to benchwork in March, also said that of the colleagues she is in communication with, all are still in Kyiv. Bezdieniezhnykh has been on a partial maternity leave for the past three years so that she can take her of her child full-time but is active in designing her laboratory’s experiments and data analysis and manuscript writing. Now, her focus is solely on keeping her family safe.

“The roads to Kyiv are all blocked, so leaving right now is not an option,” Bezdieniezhnykh wrote to The Scientist on Wednesday. “My husband runs out to the pharmacy or supermarket but it’s scary to go outside with the threat of rockets and shelling. Our local pharmacy sometimes lets us know when they will be open for a few hours. Everyone in the city is trying to help each other as best as they can—to be able to eat and get medicine.”

Across the border, research slows

While not under imminent physical threat from the war, scientists in Russia are also dealing with the fallout of their government’s military actions. As a result of the invasion, scientific institutions in other countries, including universities, are grappling with how to handle their ties to the Russian scientific community and whether to cut connections with Russian laboratories. The situation for Russians, including scientists, is difficult, as the actions of the Russian government do not necessarily reflect their own sentiments.

Russians have taken to the street in antiwar protests, but the Russian government has swiftly cracked down on dissenters, and is considering passing a law against voicing anything but the official Russian government narrative on the war in Ukraine, punishable by 15 years in prison. Dozens of scientists in Russia that The Scientist contacted declined an interview.

Andrey Komissarov, a virologist who studies the genetics and evolution of SARS-CoV-2 and other respiratory viruses at the Smorodintsev Research Institute of Influenza in Saint Petersburg, has worked closely with European collaborators and those in Ukraine and Belarus, sharing reagents and sequencing data, and organizing workshops on influenza and avian flu. “We will be feeling the consequences of this horrific war, as scientists, all around the world, for a long time,” he told The Scientist in Russian.

Komissarov’s research is particularly dependent on collaboration. Since 2020, his lab has been conducting COVID-19 epidemiology studies—sequencing and identifying variants of SARS-CoV-2 throughout Russia and sharing the data with international consortiums including the Global Influenza Surveillance and Response System (GISAID). He helped to organize the countrywide Coronavirus Russian Genetics Initiative (CoRGI) to track the rise and spread of variants there.

Doing science in Russia is going to become very difficult.

—Andrey Komissarov, Smorodintsev Research Institute of Influenza

As of Thursday (March 3), Komissarov said that the lab is conducting their experiments as planned, but that they are already seeing supply issues for some reagents and anticipate more such issues going forward as well as funding disruptions. He is still in touch with international colleagues for now, but says that “doing science in Russia is going to become very difficult.”

More than 3,000 Russian scientists and science journalists have signed an open letter protesting their government’s war against Ukraine.

“Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine is an unforgivable crime against humanity and must be stopped,” writes Natasha Raikhel, a now-retired distinguished professor of plant cell biology at University of California, Riverside, to The Scientist. Raikhel emigrated from Soviet Russia 45 years ago. “I endorse the powerful open letter of Russian scientists that condemns the war and demands its immediate end. We, scientists of the Free World, will do whatever we can to support Ukrainian scientists. Real science means innovation, progress and openness. This war is a huge setback for real science in Russia.”

Both Russian and Ukrainian scientists and immigrants from these countries are in shock at the week’s events.

“We knew that there were Russian soldiers along the Ukrainian border prior to February 24th, but most of us thought that they were there for intimidation,” says Mironenko. Ukraine’s army and civilian volunteers continue to hold off the Russian army in Kyiv, but after seven days of ground and air assaults, Russian forces have gained ground in other parts of Ukraine.

Still, Mironenko says Ukranians remain resolved. “The people of Ukraine have a history going back tens of thousands of years. Ukrainians love their land. We will keep fighting to protect it.”