Lab Leak Wars: China changes its own COVID-19 origin story, blames U.S. for outbreak

Beijing now claims that U.S. lab leak is responsible for pandemic.

The best defense is a good offense, and that’s exactly how China is strategically reacting to continuing pressure building on Beijing officials to come clean about a possible viral lab leak at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in mid to late 2019.

The stakes are high, as acknowledging the lab leak thesis would implicate the Chinese Communisty Party (CCP) in one of the greatest scandals in modern history. So instead of discussing the lab leak thesis, China is attempting to redirect blame at the United States, claiming that America is the true culprit for the spread of COVID-19.

In recent days, Beijing has decided to amp up the aggression in their war of words against the United States. The CCP is engaged in an active information operation, using virtually all of its public diplomacy tools to claim that the origin of COVID-19 is actually the Fort Detrick U.S. military lab in the Washington, D.C. area.

China’s advancement of the idea that there is a U.S. origin for COVID-19 is not new, but it is more settled on a particular culprit. In fact, it began in early 2020, but it has made a comeback thanks to Biden Administration officials finally changing their rhetoric about the Wuhan lab leak thesis, in addition to the once-maligned idea infiltrating the American corporate press. 

In recent days, I’ve collected an assortment of claims from high-ranking Chinese officials and state-media outlets. Unsurprising for a top-down authoritarian regime, the messaging campaign is consistent and relentless in attempting to advance their particular narrative.

The U.S. biodefense lab in Fort Detrick, which is located just outside of the D.C. Beltway, was temporarily shut down in August of 2019 after failed safety inspections. The laboratory was known to handle disease-causing material, such as Ebola and bacterias responsible for plague and tularemia. 

There is no public evidence of any outbreak related to the temporary closure of the U.S. facility in Frederick, Maryland. Unlike in the Wuhan lab, where there is a sustained and documented evidence trail, there is no public information regarding the U.S. lab and the handling of viruses similar to the one that causes COVID-19. While this cannot be ruled out, the lack of evidence means that China’s claims are nothing more than blind allegations. Without any particular proof, Chinese officials are attempting to link a July, 2019 respiratory outbreak at a nursing home in Virginia to the closure of Fort Detrick, which is about an hour drive away from the facility.

China’s accusations are particularly baffling because they contradict the CCP’s initial claims about the origin of COVID-19. 

In a joint paper published in early 2020 with the World Health Organization, the Chinese government pointed to a crossover event potentially arising from the Wuhan Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market. The paper ruled out the idea of a lab leak, and urged a focus on a zoonotic reservoir thesis.

However, China’s tone rapidly changed when President Trump began to hold Beijing’s feet to the fire for a potential lab leak from a high-level lab in Wuhan. When President Trump placed blame squarely at the feet of the Chinese government for the global pandemic, Beijing retaliated by reinventing their origin story.

It appears that the CCP will continue hammering the Fort Detrick theory with the hopes that it catches on with an audience outside of Beijing. For now, the information operation has failed to gain momentum, unlike China’s wildly successful disinformation campaign to shut down the entire world and convince its adversaries of the merits of lockdowns.

On Thursday, Chinese authorities on social media continued to demand an inquiry into Fort Detrick, continuing their attempts to redirect the focus from the Wuhan lab to Fort Detrick:

The rhetoric is surely heating up, but what remains to be seen is whether the Biden Administration will continue to hold China accountable in the face of major escalation from Beijing.

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