UPDATE: On March 3, 2022, C&EN published an updated version of this article containing substantial new information including comments about how the scientific community is handling collaborations with Russian institutions. We also used some of the information in this original story as part of an article, also published March 3, 2022, about how the invasion of Ukraine may affect the chemical industry.
On Feb. 24, Russian forces invaded Ukraine. Universities and workplaces closed. Some Ukrainians left the country. The situation is developing and will have long-term consequences for the region and the world.
Members of the global scientific community—including Ukrainian and Russian researchers and their colleagues—have offered statements of solidarity and an outpouring of concern for the residents of Ukraine.
Valentyn Pozhydaiev, a PhD student in Joseph Moran’s lab at the University of Strasbourg, says that his parents are safe in their home in the countryside outside Kyiv. People in Ukraine aren’t panicked, he says, and that has helped him stay calm.
Pozhydaiev’s friends and family have told the young chemist to focus on what he can control and to keep working on his research, he says. “I think they’re right because if I stopped working now, if I’m now totally distracted by all these things, I’ll become very stressed . . . I think this will harm my parents and my family even worse than what is happening with them right now.” But, he adds, he hopes people remember that many scientists are affected personally by what’s happening.
Donna Huryn of the University of Pittsburgh tells C&EN that her family has so far escaped the conflict. “Ukrainians are very proud of their heritage and identity,” she says. “They have managed to keep their culture and religion despite being under Soviet rule for so many years. Hearing people claim Ukraine is not a country is infuriating.”
Katherine Mirica, a chemist at Dartmouth College, agrees. “I am shocked and saddened by the current situation in Ukraine,” she says by email. “I stand with united Ukraine and pray for the safety of my family there and the Ukrainian people.”
The scientific community has also offered research funding, lab space, and accommodation for researchers who have managed to leave the country. These resources are collated online in a spreadsheet and on a map on the Science for Ukraine website.
Many demonstrations against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine were held in cities worldwide on Feb. 24. In Russia, these protests carried particular risk as authorities arrested anti-war protesters. In an open letter on the website of the Russian newspaper TRV-Nauka, Russian scientists and science journalists joined the call for Russia to stop the military invasion of neighboring Ukraine where “many of us have relatives, friends and scientific colleagues.” The letter continues, “We demand respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Ukrainian state. We demand peace for our countries.”
Chemists who work with Ukrainian research chemical firms have also expressed disbelief and solidarity. Ed Griffen of MedChemica is team leader of an initiative called COVID Moonshot, which is working to develop a COVID-19 antiviral. Griffen had been in discussions with the team about visiting an Enamine site in Kyiv. Enamine is a founding member of the COVID Moonshot group, and it has “always gone above and beyond in just getting the job done,” Griffen says in an emailed statement. “Obviously we’re all extremely worried about our team in Kyiv,” he says. “We will stick by them as they have stuck by us.”
Enamine is one of several Kyiv-based companies that supply building block chemicals and compound libraries to the world’s drug companies. The company has partnered with many chemists across the world, says Brian Shoichet at the University of California, San Francisco. Shoichet says an Enamine scientist is currently on sabbatical in his lab and they are now “scrambling” to get him immigration status and grants so that he can stay at UCSF and be paid. Additionally, “we have friends with whom we speak regularly, and who are on many of our papers, now anticipating the arrival of an invading army in their city. It’s a fraught moment,” Shoichet says.
C&EN spoke to Enamine’s Ivan Kondratov on Feb. 28, exchanging messages in gaps between Kondratov’s other work. Kondratov is head of medicinal chemistry at the firm and says that he and his family were luckily in the west of Ukraine when the Russian attacks started. Kondratov has stayed there trying to coordinate the work and safety of his colleagues.
Enamine had first said that it hoped to restart chemical synthesis work on Monday, Feb. 28, but as the situation developed, this goal proved optimistic. “It is impossible to do anything when the air-raid warning can take place in any time,” Kondratov says. The priority, he adds, is safety. “Therefore all the flammable solvents and materials are hidden or removed.”
Life Chemicals, another company that is currently shut down, employs about 120 people in Ukraine, half of whom are chemists. The firm closed its offices and production site in Kyiv for at least Thursday and Friday, Feb. 24 and 25, according to Vasily Pinchuk, the firm’s vice president of sales and marketing, speaking to C&EN on Feb. 24. “We will see what will happen on Monday,” he says.
Pinchuk, a Ukrainian who is based in Canada, says martial law is in place, and it is not safe to move around. “There have been air strikes on Kyiv,” he says. “We hope that this nightmare will end.”
Most Life Chemicals employees are still at home in the Kyiv area, Pinchuk says, although some with small children have left for what they hope will be safer places in the western part of the country.
Companies like Enamine and Life Chemicals emerged in Ukraine and Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union, when chemists who worked for the state were forced to find new opportunities in the private sector.
Building block and compound library synthesis continues to be a good career path for chemists who graduate from universities such as Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv, Pinchuk says.“We have a very high level of education,” Pinchuk says of Ukraine, “and very good chemists, and the overhead is less than it is in the US. We can do any kind of synthetic medchem projects that can be asked of us.”
Although Life Chemicals, like Enamine, stocks some products in the US and Europe, Pinchuk warns that drug industry research projects could be disrupted if the companies are forced to stay closed for long. “Right now we cannot say,” he says.
If the conflict continues, that disruption will spread to the broader chemical enterprise. “The chemical-pharmaceutical industry is looking with great concern at the military escalation of the Ukraine crisis,” Wolfgang Große Entrup, the managing director of VCI, Germany’s leading chemical industry association, says in a statement.
Große Entrup and other industry watchers expect Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will push up the cost of making petrochemicals, particularly if Russian exports of oil and gas—raw materials for making petrochemicals—are restricted as part of sanctions imposed on Russia by the international community.
“Chemical companies are threatened in this case with exploding prices for natural gas at an already historically extremely high price level,” Große Entrup says.
Those high prices have resulted in the temporary closure of energy-intensive facilities in Europe, including two CF Industries fertilizer plants in the UK.
Exports to Russia could also be curtailed, affecting Germany’s chemical industry in particular. Some 2.4% of Germany’s chemical exports, worth about $6 billion, went to Russia in 2021, according to VCI.
VCI says it supports the imposition of sanctions on Russia despite the potential economic hit to the chemical sector. “We clearly stand behind the political decisions of the EU heads of government,” Große Entrup states.
This story was updated on March 1, 2022, to add information about scientists worldwide opening their labs to Ukrainian scientists and to include an update from Ivan Kondratov about Enamine's operations in Ukraine as of Monday, Feb. 28.
This article was updated on Feb. 28, 2022, to correct a quote from Vasily Pinchuk of Life Chemicals. Pinchuk said his firm can do any kind of synthetic medchem, not medicine, projects.