A conspiracy theory that links the origins of Covid-19 to a US military lab is trending on Chinese social media on Wednesday (Jan. 20), after a spokesperson from the country’s foreign ministry redirected the public’s focus to the lab this week.
The fresh attention being drawn by a Chinese official to the theory just ahead of the inauguration of Joe Biden today (Jan. 20) as president, could indicate that the new administration will face an uphill battle when it comes to US-China relationship, and a continuation of the blame game between the two countries over the pandemic.
Hua Chunying, a spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry, said on Monday (Jan. 18) at a press conference that the US should open Fort Detrick, a military medical research base in Maryland, for further investigation as a possible origin of Covid-19. “I’d like to stress that if the United States truly respects facts, it should open the biological lab at Fort Detrick, give more transparency to issues like its 200-plus overseas bio-labs, invite WHO [the World Health Organization] experts to conduct origin-tracing in the United States, and respond to the concerns from the international community with real actions,” she said.
Hua made the remark in response to a question on China’s reaction to a statement last week from the outgoing US state secretary Mike Pompeo, who said the US government has “reasons to believe” some staffers at China’s state-owned Wuhan Institute of Virology developed symptoms that were consistent with “both Covid-19 and common seasonal illnesses” in autumn 2019, before the pandemic turned Wuhan into its epicenter early last year. Early into the pandemic, the Wuhan lab has been at the center of the conspiracy theories about the virus, to an extent that Shi Zhengli, a lead researcher of the lab, said she “guaranteed with her life” that the virus was totally unrelated to the institution.
In general, theories suggesting the virus was purpose-built or the work of scientists have been emphatically rejected by scientists globally, and many of them believe it originated in wildlife, such as bats. Although some studies indicate that the virus could have been present in countries like Italy in 2019, most researchers point to China as the most likely origin of Covid-19 given the virus was first identified in Wuhan. Despite the apparent danger of promoting unfounded conspiracy theories, prominent figures from both China and the US, such as Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian and Republican senators Tom Cotton and Ted Cruz, have promoted some of these claims amid ongoing US-China tensions.
Hua’s Monday comment gave a fresh push to the ongoing suspicion in China that the virus could come from outside the country, partly a result of Beijing’s effort to sow confusion over the origins of Covid-19. Last year Zhao promoted the idea that US athletes from the military who attended a sports event in Wuhan in 2019 could have spread the virus.
The hashtag #foreign ministry, which accompanied reports of Hua’s Fort Detrick remarks published by media outlets, shot to the top among all trending topics on Weibo late on Tuesday, while early today the hashtag #the US Fort Detrick biology lab, which has been viewed over 1 billion times, also occupied the top place on the platform briefly.
A post that contained a video clip of Hua’s remark on the US lab received around 4.5 million upvotes, with commentators saying they now firmly believe the virus is from the US. “Even the foreign ministry said so, it seems [the conspiracy theory] is true,” the top comment under the post read. Multiple state-owned Chinese outlets published reports on the US military lab shortly after Hua’s comment became viral, with the articles carrying headlines such as “the secret you don’t know about: the Fort Detrick biology lab.”
Hua’s remark came shortly after a team of independent experts led by WHO arrived in China last week to investigate the origins of the coronavirus, including how it leaped to humans. They are currently going through a two-week quarantine before they can look at samples and evidence provided by the Chinese authorities.
“They have certainly set up the idea domestically at least that the WHO investigation is a farce unless they investigate the US too,” wrote Bill Bishop, a veteran China analyst in his newsletter.
For Biden, who is expected to unite western democracies to challenge Beijing’s authoritarian rule, the timing of Hua’s remark and the discussion that ensued signal he should expect to deal with a Beijing that will continue its aggressive diplomatic style, whose practitioners have been dubbed “wolf warriors.”
“This whole ‘wolf-warrior’ approach is not an anomaly, it is a fundamental principle of Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy, and the struggle is only going to intensify, now [no] matter who is in the White House,” wrote Bishop, referring to the thinking of China’s leader.
Correction: This article was updated to clarify Zhao Lijian was the foreign ministry official who promoted a Covid-19 conspiracy theory about US athletes last year.