Five days into the bombing of Kyiv in Ukraine, Alla Mironenko, a female physician-scientist and virologist and head of the Influenza Laboratory in the city, told The Scientist that laboratories were empty. The war was taking its toll on the scientific community. At the Centre of Influenza and Acute Respiratory Infections of the country’s Ministry of Health, highly important cell culture work had come to a standstill.
While COVID-19 is still an issue with new strains appearing globally, new multiplex PCR kits used for identifying the influenza virus and SARS-CoV-2 were lying unused on a lab bench. The kits had arrived late last month and experiments were due to start soon, but then Russia invaded.
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 in the country. While the international science community has expressed support for Ukrainian colleagues with 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
As Russia targets civilians, residential areas and civilian institutions, scientists had decided to watch and wait. Mirnonenko told international media that scientific colleagues and their children were hiding 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.
Mironenko’s biggest concern for the lab is that a power outage could compromise the building’s deep freezers store re-agents and samples and years’ worth of work. “If the power goes out, that will ruin everything”, she said. The European Union planned to urgently link Europe’s electrical system to Ukraine’s electric grid.
“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
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 bench work in March, also said that of the colleagues she is in communication with, all are still in Kyiv. She is active in designing her laboratory’s experiments and data analysis and manuscript writing. Now, her focus is solely on keeping her family safe.
Across the border, research slows
International reports show that 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.
Russian scientists fear of being labelled as dissenters
Russians have taken to the street in anti-war 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. To defy this order is punishable by 15 years in prison. Dozens of scientists in Russia that The Scientist contacted declined an interview for fear of being targeted.
Andrey Komissarov, a Russian virologist studying 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 .
Komissarov’s research is especially dependent on collaboration. Since 2020, his lab had 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 also helped to organise 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
Komissarov said that the lab is conducting their experiments as planned, but that they are already seeing supply shortages for some re-agents 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.”