As the WHO investigated coronavirus origins in China, Beijing pushed a conspiracy about the US

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When World Health Organization investigators wrapped up their work examining the origins of the coronavirus in Wuhan this month, Chinese officials were clear where they felt the WHO should look next.

“(We hope) that following China’s example, the US side will act in a positive, science-based and cooperative manner on the origin-tracing issue (and) invite WHO experts in for an origin-tracing study,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said last week.
Going even further, Zeng Guang, chief epidemiologist at China’s Center for Disease Control, said the US should now be “the focus” of global efforts to trace the virus.
That Chinese officials should point to the US when discussing the origins of a virus first detected in central China may at first appear confusing to many.
But for months now, China has been advancing alternative theories for how the coronavirus first emerged, ones that would obviate any blame officials in Wuhan may bear for not reacting quickly enough to the initial outbreak in that city in late 2019, during which they are accused of dragging their feet as evidence of human-to-human spread became clear and the virus ran rampant.
One Chinese theory in particular emerged early on in the pandemic but gained significant traction in recent weeks, as the WHO investigation and new outbreaks of the coronavirus in China renewed attention both internally and externally on the government’s alleged failures.
In many ways, this theory is the mirror image of a conspiracy about China alleging that the virus might have emerged — either intentionally or by mistake — from a lab in Wuhan focused on researching deadly pathogens. That this did not happen is one of the few definitive statements the WHO team were able to make after their trip to the city this month.
“(Our) findings suggest that the laboratory incident hypothesis is extremely unlikely to explain introduction of the virus into the human population, and therefore is not a hypothesis that implies to suggest future studies into our work, to support our future work, into the understanding of the origin of the virus,” Peter Ben Embarek, a member of the team, said at a press conference announcing their findings held before the team left China.

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Fort Detrick, a US Army base in Maryland, has become the focus of Chinese conspiracy theories about the coronavirus.
At the same time, however, Zeng, the Chinese CDC official, was advancing just such a hypothesis, not about the Wuhan lab, but Fort Detrick, a US Army biomedical research laboratory in Maryland. There is no evidence to support this theory.
“The US has biological laboratories all over the world,” he told a Shanghai-based website, in an interview which linked Fort Detrick, and the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) based there, to research carried out by the notorious Unit 731 of the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II.
“Why does the US have so many laboratories? What is the purpose of this?” Zeng said. “In many things, the US requires others to be open and transparent. In the end, it turns out that the US itself is often the most opaque.”
The idea that the coronavirus may have emerged from a lab, that the pandemic which ground the world to a halt may have been man-made, is not isolated to China. Many US politicians and conspiracists have pushed the idea that a Chinese lab might have been responsible, while others have posited alternative supposed bioweapon creators, including the US itself.
A survey carried out by Pew in April 2020 found that some 30% of Americans believed the virus was created in a lab, with most of those claiming it was created intentionally.
Around that time, leading members of then-US President Donald Trump’s administration, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, attempted to link the Wuhan Institute of Virology to the coronavirus, implying it might have escaped — or even been released — from the lab.
This claim was angrily rejected by China and rebuked by leading scientists working on the virus. Following an inspection of the lab itself this month, the WHO team largely dismissed it in a press conference as a possible origin of the Wuhan outbreak.
According to a CNN investigation, growing scrutiny of the lab in early 2020, along with criticism of China’s initial handling of the pandemic, appears to have prompted the Communist Party’s propaganda organs to adopt the Fort Detrick conspiracy as a potential counter, a disinformation mirror to deflect criticism both legitimate and groundless.
And as attention returned to Wuhan at the start of this year, promotion of this conspiracy has redoubled, with a web of official government accounts, influencers, and state media spreading this disinformation to tens of millions of user online.
Angela Xiao Wu, an assistant professor at NYU Steinhardt who has studied efforts at shaping online opinion in China, said it was “surely an effective tactic for the Party-state to direct people’s critical attention outwards as a way to channel their fears and frustrations,” though she added many other governments had adopted similar tactics, “including the Trump Administration.”
CNN’s findings, detailed below, match those of a separate investigation published this month by the Associated Press in conjunction with the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab).

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