Attempts by Chinese authorities to shift the narrative around Covid-19’s origins have reignited on social media this week after a government spokesperson revived a conspiracy theory that it came from a US army lab.
Hua Chunying, a spokesperson for the foreign affairs ministry, was responding to a US state department “fact sheet” released last week that claimed there was new evidence of researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology falling ill before the first known cases of Covid-19 in the city. The state department did not provide data to back up its assertions.
Hua accused the US of spreading “conspiracy theories and lies” as part of the “last-day madness of Mr Liar”, apparently referring to either Donald Trump or his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo.
“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 experts to conduct origin-tracing in the United States, and respond to the concerns from the international community with real actions,” said Hua.
On the microblogging platform Weibo, the Chinese hashtag for “biological laboratory in US Fort Detrick” has been viewed more than 900m times, with comments latching on to the conspiracy theory that the US could be the source.
“The origin of coronavirus – American virus!” said one commenter. Another said: “Apologise to the bats!”
Tit-for-tat accusations of the virus beginning in a lab have bubbled since at least mid-2020, after China’s attempts to cover up the initial outbreak. In recent months Chinese officials have ramped up efforts to suggest the virus began outside of China, airing theories without evidence linking it to US military personnel, and there has been blanket state media coverage of virus detections on frozen food imports and ice-cream.
WHO’s director of the health emergencies programme, Michael Ryan, said it was “highly speculative” to argue that coronavirus came from outside China, and investigations should start where the first confirmed human cases emerged.
China only this month allowed a team of scientists from the WHO into the country on a mission to investigate the source of the outbreak. The team is completing quarantine in Wuhan, and several members have told media that their investigation is not about apportioning blame but about finding as much information as possible to reduce the risk of the disease. They have expressed concern about Chinese officials blocking access.
The virus was first identified among people who had worked at or visited a market in Wuhan, and there is evidence to suggest the virus jumped to humans from bats via an intermediary animal.