As a result of Russia’s investigation of US biological research in Ukraine, similar US operations in other regions of the world are now being scrutinized more closely. Reports regarding the Pentagon conducting illegal biological research in Indonesia despite biolabs ban have resurfaced.
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During April 2022, the Indonesian news site Detik published an article concerning alleged US Navy soldiers breaking Indonesian laws during the 2016 Pacific Partnership exercise in Padang, West Sumatra. According to records acquired by journalists, American military surgeons operated on 23 local patients on board the USNS Mercy hospital ship without consulting the Indonesian Ministry of Health.
Without the authorization of the Indonesian government, the ship’s crew might well have covertly exported samples of blood from scores of Indonesian patients and transferred three rabid canines from West Sumatra, which is recognized as rabies endemic zone. According to Padang health officials, the Americans sought to collect dengue fever virus specimens from local mosquitoes.
These episodes reminded Indonesian journalists of the story of NAMRU-2, a US Navy biological laboratory that operated in Jakarta from 1970 to 2009, when it was declared “a threat to Indonesia’s sovereignty” by the country’s Health Ministry.
The Jakarta Lab
In central Jakarta, Jalan Percetakan Negara is a bustling yet narrow street. Hundreds of commuters travel through this neighborhood in the evenings, which is renowned for its building supplies stores and dozens of sidewalk food vendors.
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An outsider, and even many Jakartans, would never guess that the building at Jalan Percetakan Negara 29 – a poorly lit residence in the middle of an Indonesian government agency compound – had been home to NAMRU-2 for 40 years– an American naval bioresearch facility where risky pathogens and viruses were stashed and worked with.
The Rockefeller Foundation founded the US Naval Medical Research Unit (NAMRU) on Guam. It was founded in 1955, and the NAMRU-2 unit in Jakarta was established in 1970 “to study infectious diseases of potential military significance in Asia.”
The general efficacy of the American research, according to Dr Siti Fadilah Supari, a cardiology expert who functioned as Indonesia’s health minister from 2004 to 2009, was dubious:
“Although they focused on malaria and tuberculosis, the results for 40 years in Indonesia were not significant,” says Dr Supari. She went on to say that the deal between Indonesia and the US to build the lab expired in 1980, “and then after that they were stateless.”
Dr.Siti Fadilah Supari and Sputnik correspondent Denis Bolotsky
However, it was not just the lab’s questionable performance that worried Dr. Supari about the American facility:
Dr. Supari also expressed worry about the lack of equal participation of Indonesian professionals in the program. But arguably the largest red flag for the minister was the possibility of getting specimens from contagious patients for research purposes and shipping them overseas by American staff with diplomatic status. Dr. Supari was fighting global health authorities and Big Pharma businesses at the time over the injustices of virus specimen sharing through World Health Organization (WHO)-affiliated mechanisms, with impoverished countries suffering from the spread of H5N1 (the Avian influenza).
In 2006, NAMRU-2, which was a WHO collaborating center at the time, detected a batch of H5N1 infections in Indonesia. The government expressly requested that the samples be shared with the US Centres for Disease Control (CDC), which was also linked with the WHO, and that the Americans not pass the material to anyone else. Nonetheless, the CDC, according to multiple reports, handed them to a sequencing database at the US Los Alamos National Laboratory, which was designed to design nuclear weapons. This infuriated the Indonesians, fueling worries that the specimens were being utilized for military reasons by the Pentagon and adding fuel to the fire. Frank L Smith III quoted a former Jakarta lab employee in his 2014 paper “Advancing Science Diplomacy: Indonesia and the US Naval Medical Research Unit” who said that by sharing the specimens with Los Alamos Laboratory and Big Pharma, the CDC effectively “threw [NAMRU-2] under the bus.”
In April 2008, then-Health Minister Supari made an unexpected visit to NAMRU-2, speaking to the press about the lab’s lack of disclosure and refusal to discuss its findings with the Indonesian government.
Dr. Supari’s campaign against the American military facility, as well as other events linked to it, were creating national headlines, according to a man who desired to be referred to by the pseudonym “Henry,” and who has been a journalist with one of Indonesia’s main media outlets for nearly 30 years. According to Henry, the building of NAMRU-2 nearly burned down about the time minister Supari began exerting pressure on it. While the fire was soon doused, the source is still undetermined. He went to the location since he was tasked to cover the story.
From Jakarta to DC: The WikiLeaks Memos
NAMRU was reportedly very important to Washington. The US Embassy in Jakarta transmitted hundreds of reports to the US capital on NAMRU’s legal status and the Indonesian government’s operations linked to the lab’s functioning, according to some of the 3,000+ American diplomatic cables disclosed by Julian Assange’s Wikileaks website in 2010.
In the spring of 2008, the US Mission and NAMRU management even organized a press briefing on the lab’s work as part of “an offensive against misinformation.” The Americans subsequently sought to relinquish most of their public diplomacy in favor of a more focused attempt to influence key Indonesian politicians and parliamentarians in order to maintain the lab functioning, according to a memo sent to the Department of State by then US Ambassador to Indonesia Cameron Hume: “The best hope to keep NAMRU-2 in Indonesia is to convince key policymakers of its continued usefulness to both countries,” Hume wrote.
According to Wikileaks intercepts, Minister Supari’s opposition had become a major issue for the US. Most NAMRU-related memos acknowledged her by name. On June 12, 2009, American diplomats even proposed that their DC bosses should help “manage” her by strengthening US-Indonesian health cooperation, which could help save the Jakarta lab:
Nonetheless, despite US pressure, Minister Supari was able to shut NAMRU-2 with the cooperation of Indonesia’s top diplomats and military personnel. She still deems 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 without going into further detail.
Supari submitted a letter to the US Government on October 16, 2009, canceling the 1970 agreement on NAMRU-2, and later that year, the Foreign Ministry sent an official notice to the Americans stating that the site should be closed. In 2010, the personnel’s Indonesian visas expired, and the lab’s equipment was transported to the US embassy compound.
Minister Supari resigned at the end of 2009. Endang Rahayu Sedyaningsih, her successor, apparently had contacts with NAMRU-2 in the past but decided not to enable the lab’s activities in Jakarta to resume officially.
Research in the Grey Zone: Beyond NAMRU-2 Era
The US Indo-Pacific Command (PACOM) only vaguely describes medical manipulations found by Detik’s journalists as “community health outreach events” in the final press statement regarding the 2016 naval exercise in Padang, but says nothing about rabid canines or human blood samples.
In April 2005, Henry was a guest on the USNS Mercy when he nearly drowned after a tsunami in Pulau Nias, North Sumatra province. The Americans who had sent the ship to the area had invited him onboard to repair his shattered glasses. They also requested Henry’s aid in locating patients for US naval surgeons to operate on because he knew English. He describes the procedure as simple:
According to Detik’s analysis, the system for selecting patients for USNS Mercy procedures seems to have become more complex by 2016, with 100% of instances involving locally completed medical pre-screening at a stationary hospital in Padang. Nonetheless, the authors wrote, citing sources, that the Americans continued to breach local rules, particularly when it came to the transfer of diseased specimens, and did not get “material transfer permission” before transporting the samples abroad.
The journalists stated that they are investigating possible future violations of Indonesian health rules by the US Navy during the 2018 Pacific Partnership drill in another location, Bengkulu province, but that no proof of such misdoings has been uncovered so far.
Dr Supari responded affirmatively when questioned whether, based on the Detik team’s observations, some aspects of biological research by Americans or their local affiliates for the advantage of the US could still be taking place on Indonesian soil, and whether the country’s government should investigate the matter:
The USNS Mercy made its final stop at Padang during the 2016 Pacific Partnership drills, therefore the information obtained from human blood sampling in Indonesia, as well as the rabid dogs purportedly picked up in Padang, are likely to have ended up in the ship’s US homeport of San Diego.
It is still unclear what the true goal of these medical and biological study modifications during a disaster response exercise was. It is also uncertain whether the United States has given up on military-related biological research in the Southeast Asian country since the NAMRU-2 lab was shut down.