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Chinese officials are amplifying false claims that Covid-19 emerged from US labs

Katherine Hignett
Health Studio
United Kingdom

Pro-Kremlin actors have promoted outlandish rumours about “activity” at US labs for decades, from KGB agents claiming that scientists invented HIV to state media alleging the military is spreading swine flu.

So perhaps it’s not all that surprising that pro-Russian media have re-adapted these fake stories for the pandemic alleging the coronavirus, too, was made in a US lab. But over the last year, a new foreign player has co-opted the latest version of this well-trodden narrative: China.

 

What is the “secret labs” conspiracy theory?

 

The “secret labs” conspiracy theory is an ever-evolving narrative that claims, without evidence, that the US is illegally developing biological weapons at a number of laboratories around the world.

Like many enduring conspiracy theories, the narrative has a kernel of truth to it. A famous example is that of the Fort Detrick military lab in Maryland, which was a biological weapons research centre from 1943 to 1969.

Since that time, it’s been at the heart of the US’s biological defense program, in which scientists study pathogens like the Ebola virus and smallpox to learn how best to protect the public from biological threats.

But false stories about the site, undermining its core function as a research facility, have also been propagated for decades. In the 1980s and 1990s, for example, a KGB disinformation agent claimed the US developed HIV at the lab. Scientific research, however, has shown the virus emerged naturally, likely jumping from primates to humans in the early 20th century.

More recently, pro-Russian media has made outlandish claims about the biological research performed at labs in its neighbouring countries.

One prominent example concerns the Richard Lugar Center for Public Health Research in Tbilisi: a Georgian public health facility that was opened in 2011 with US funding.

Over the years, pro-Kremlin outlets have baselessly claimed the US has used this lab to spread diseases like swine flu and even develop crop-ravaging bugs.

But biological weapons experts that have toured the Lugar lab say there is no evidence of unusual activity.

King’s College London’s Dr Filippa Lentzos, wrote of a visit in 2018: “We were given access to all areas of the site, examined relevant documentation, and interviewed staff, and concluded that the Center demonstrates significant transparency.”

European Commission spokesman Peter Stano told Health Studio that pro-Kremlin outlets “frequently” use this kind of disinformation to suggest countries like Georgia are secretly collaborating with the US.

And this activity has gained a new lease of life during the pandemic, he said. Not only does this disinformation “sow distrust in national governments and health authorities”, but it “fuels fears caused by the pandemic.”

 

Chinese amplification

 

This revival has seen pro-Kremlin outlets falsely claim coronavirus was created by the US as a biological weapon. Scientific evidence strongly supports a natural explanation and has done since the very start of the pandemic.

Now other countries have tried to claim the same. Chinese officials and state media outlets have been making misleading statements about “US labs” for more than a year, as EU vs Disinfo noted in a recent report.

In April 2020, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs voiced “concerns” over US labs in former Soviet Union countries on Twitter, echoing Russia’s long standing but thoroughly debunked narrative.

State-controlled Russian broadcaster RT then published an article about the fact that China was “concerned” about activity at secret US labs, amplifying and adding a false layer of legitimacy to its own disinformation.

 

 

Chinese state-owned media outlets continued to share this narrative as the pandemic progressed, releasing a Youtube video last May that asked internet users to dig up information about US labs.

A second video, published to various international China Global Television Network accounts over the summer, purported to share the “revelations” uncovered by internet users.

Chinese leaders continue to amplify this conspiracy theory to this day. Just last month, government official Lijian Zhao reiterated “concerns” over US research in Ukraine and at Fort Detrick.

 

 

Why is China spreading this disinformation?

 

Stano told Health Studio it’s difficult to know the specific reasons why Chinese sources are amplifying this narrative. But he said there has been a “coordinated push by official Chinese sources to deflect any blame for the outbreak of the pandemic” ever since it began.

It’s likely the government is trying to undermine the fact that the disease was first discovered in Wuhan, China. “State media have from early on tried to curtail any mention” of this fact,” he said. “State-controlled social media channels also spread a theory about the outbreak in Wuhan being linked to US military representatives, for example, indicating an intent to spread confusion about the origin of the virus.”

The “secret labs” theory seems to share the same goal, he added: of “creating doubts about the virus’s origin.”

Katherine Hignett -
Health Studio
United Kingdom

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