China is pushing its own coronavirus lab leak theory in latest battle of narratives
- Beijing is seeking to counter the hypothesis that the virus could have escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology
- Diplomats and state media are calling for US military base Fort Detrick to be investigated in a ‘new kind of tit-for-tat’
Odds are that most Americans have never heard of Fort Detrick, about an hour’s drive from Washington and the original home of the US biological weapons programme.
They have said dozens of times in social media posts and press conferences that Fort Detrick, half a world away from China in the state of Maryland, needs to be investigated as a potential source of the virus.
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“Mysterious EVALI [e-cigarette or vaping-use associated lung injury] broke out in Wisconsin in July 2019 with symptoms almost identical to those of Covid-19. The place of outbreak is within 1-hour drive from #fortdetrick,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on Twitter on June 22.
Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a professor of politics at Hong Kong Baptist University, said the intensity of China’s counter-narrative was a sign of how aggressive its diplomats had become in recent years.
“Before, China was more passive, it would just keep a high degree of opacity but not react in that way, with disinformation and accusations without any evidence,” he said.
When the Covid-19 disease caused by the Sars-CoV-2 virus first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan at the end of 2019, the majority assumption was it had jumped from animals, like its predecessor in the coronavirus family, Sars, in 2003.
Now, however, as a growing number of scientists and politicians call for a more robust independent investigation into the origins of Covid-19, including the Wuhan lab leak hypothesis, China argues Fort Detrick needs to be part of that probe.
Fort Detrick once powered the US bioweapons programme that ran from 1943 to when it was shut down in 1969. The US Army installation is now home to the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, the country’s biodefence agency.
In August 2019, Fort Detrick’s BSL-4, or top security, lab was shut down by the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention for safety violations related to the disposal of dangerous materials. It was reopened in April 2020, but the closure became grist for the mill in China’s tightly controlled domestic information environment.
The hashtag for Fort Detrick’s Chinese name has over 270 million hits on Weibo, a Twitter-like platform, usually on themes of the US hiding bioweapons and researching deadly viruses.
Chinese media outlets have followed this line during the pandemic. Global Times, People’s Daily and China Daily have published over 100 articles on Fort Detrick, according to a Post analysis of their English-language archives.
“It’s a new kind of tit-for-tat. Maybe they believe this will satisfy their own public opinion, because it’s not something that will be very credible outside of China, but within China, nationalists are going to be happy with it,” said politics professor Cabestan.
Beijing’s first mention of Fort Detrick came in March 2020, soon after then-US president Donald Trump claimed without evidence that the new coronavirus originated from a lab leak in Wuhan.
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The day after that WHO report was released, 14 countries – including the US, Britain, Australia, Japan, South Korea and Canada – issued a statement stating concerns about a lack of access to original Wuhan laboratory data for the investigation.
China spokesman Zhao responded by bringing up Fort Detrick.
“What activities has the US military been conducting in these labs and the base at Fort Detrick?” Zhao said. “We once again call on the US to adopt a responsible attitude, earnestly respond to international concerns, and offer a full clarification on its bio-military activities at home and abroad.”
Milton Leitenberg, a biochemist and senior research associate with the Centre for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland, said the suspicions China raises about Fort Detrick ignore the base’s past transparency.
Leitenberg said the US terminated its offensive biological weapons programme in 1969 and then invited officials from the Soviet Union to inspect Fort Detrick.
Then in 1991, Washington agreed to allow a Soviet team to visit any facilities of their choosing in the US to check the Americans complied with the Biological Weapons Convention of 1973 to destroy offensive biological weaponry, he said.
Also in the 1990s, several Chinese scientists spent extended periods working at Fort Detrick, according to Leitenberg, who has researched arms control for over 50 years and authored several books on the subject, including biological weapons.
In contrast, he said: “The Chinese government has never permitted any Western expert, scientist or international team to visit any of its allegedly defensive military biological weapons facilities.”
China’s foreign and defence ministries did not respond to requests for comment.
Beijing’s focus on Fort Detrick was a response to an aggressive propaganda campaign from the American right, kicked off by Trump, according to some experts.
She claimed to have written a paper that showed Covid-19 was engineered by the Chinese military, a claim no virologist has endorsed.
Gregory Koblentz, director of the biodefence graduate programme at George Mason University in Virginia, called the theory that China engineered Covid-19 as a biological weapon “bizarre and ridiculous”.
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Covid-19 was politicised early on, creating fertile ground for conspiracy theories, he said. “It’s hard to have that level of nuance when you’re dealing with Fox News or China’s Global Times, who blamed Fort Detrick,” he said.
But China’s targeting of Fort Detrick was a “classic authoritarian tactic” and comes out of Russia’s disinformation playbook, said Koblentz, who briefed the UN Security Council in 2016 on the threat of bioterrorism.
“The Russians, directly and then through different proxies, constantly create new stories that the [US] Department of Defence is building biological weapons in Georgia and Ukraine to use against ethnic Russians,” he said.
Fort Detrick figured in Soviet disinformation campaigns in the 1980s, when the KGB secret service launched Operation Infektion on the Aids outbreak, according to declassified cables held at the Wilson Centre think tank in Washington.
Infektion said the US defence department and Central Intelligence Agency had developed and intentionally spread Aids to suppress black and third-world populations.
Leitenberg also recalls how Fort Detrick was accused of manufacturing the virus that causes Aids. The parallels with Beijing’s current campaign were evident, he said.
“The Chinese did not play that game until March 2020. And when they started it, they went full hawk.”
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That conclusion, according to Biden’s deadline, will be reached around August 24, but it is unlikely to end the laboratory tit-for-tat as China forges ahead with its Fort Detrick narrative.
On Saturday, China’s nationalist tabloid Global Times published what it called an open letter and petition calling on the WHO to investigate Fort Detrick. The petition has so far received more than 3 million signatures, according to the website.
It also shared a poll that asked respondents where the next investigation into Covid-19’s origins should take place. The four options specified were the US and Fort Detrick, India, Italy, and “other countries” – 94.4 per cent of respondents chose the US.
Spokesman Zhao brought this up on Monday during a press conference, stating: “These spontaneous actions by the people and the media actually ask questions that the international community has not been able to answer for a long time and some people in the United States have always kept secret.”