China doubles down on baseless 'US origins' Covid conspiracy as Delta outbreak worsens

Published on August 6, 2021 1:23 AM

by Nectar Gan and Steve George, CNN

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Hong Kong As Beijing grapples with a worsening outbreak of the Delta variant, an outlandish conspiracy theory linking the origin of the coronavirus to the United States military has gained renewed traction in China.

The wholly unfounded theory, which claims the virus may have been leaked from a US Army lab, has been repeatedly promoted by Chinese officials and state media since March last year.

But over the past week, Beijing has doubled down on the conspiracy, mobilizing its diplomats and vast propaganda apparatus to call for a World Health Organization investigation into the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Maryland.

The campaign comes after Beijing rejected WHO's proposal for a second-phase probe into the origins of Covid-19 last month. The study would include audits of laboratories and markets in Wuhan, the original epicenter of the pandemic. That has drawn the ire of Beijing, with a top Chinese health official accusing WHO of "disregarding common sense and defying science."

WHO released an initial report from its Covid origins study in China in March, concluding the lab leak theory was "extremely unlikely." But a growing number of Western nations and scientists have questioned the thoroughness of the original report, accusing China of "withholding access to complete, original data and samples."

In late May, US President Joe Biden ordered American intelligence agencies to redouble efforts to look into how the coronavirus originated, including the possibility it emerged from a lab accident.

The intelligence community was required to report back to Biden in 90 days. Since then, no smoking gun has emerged to support the lab leak theory, and many scientists continue to believe the virus is more likely to have jumped naturally from animals to humans. For now, senior intelligence officials say they are genuinely split between the two theories.

Beijing has emphatically rejected the idea the coronavirus could have been leaked from a lab in Wuhan, alleging that Washington is attempting to politicize its origins. And yet at the same time, it is also aggressively pushing a counter-lab leak conspiracy theory without any scientific evidence. Last month, the state-run Global Times started a campaign calling for people to sign an open letter to WHO demanding an investigation into the Fort Detrick lab. The letter — which only requires a single click online to "sign" — has since gathered 25 million "signatures." At a news conference last week, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian called for WHO to investigate both the Fort Detrick lab and a laboratory at the University of North Carolina, helmed by leading US coronavirus expert Ralph Baric. Zhao also suggested American military athletes who attended the World Military Games in Wuhan in October 2019 could have brought the coronavirus into China — reiterating a baseless claim he made on Twitter in March 2020.

China's state broadcaster CCTV, meanwhile, aired a 30-minute report this week titled the "dark inside story of Fort Detrick." On Weibo, China's heavily censored version of Twitter, a hashtag related to the report was the top trending topic on Tuesday morning. It has since been viewed 420 million times.

On social media, some government and state media accounts promoted yet another groundless theory from an obscure Italian tabloid, which alleged the US military had spread the coronavirus to Italy through a blood donation program. "Damning evidence! The coronavirus entered Europe from Fort Detrick via a US army blood donation program," read the headline of a widely read story posted by the Communist Youth League, the youth branch of China's ruling Communist Party.

The concerted propaganda push has further fanned nationalist fury against the US. Some Chinese internet users have accused the US of being "shameless," while increasing numbers have taken to referring to Covid as the "US virus" — a dig at the term "China virus" repeatedly used by former US President Donald Trump, who lashed out at Beijing as his administration struggled to contain surging cases and deaths in America.