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Foreign Policy

False Claims and Conspiracies Undermine Cooperation against Biological Threats

Jun 06 , 2020

In his recent presentation on the sidelines of the third session of the 13th National People's Congress, Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi naturally devoted substantial time to the global impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. As expected, he defended his government’s initial response to the spread of the coronavirus within China and affirmed that Chinese policies had assisted the international as well as domestic response to the pandemic. However, the Minister also castigated “politicians in the U.S. who are eager to label the virus and stigmatize China,” adding that such “lies” and “prejudice” aim to advance a "political virus" to attack and smear China. Wang observed that “virus tracing is a serious and complex scientific task, which should be studied and explored by scientists and medical experts.” 

Relying on science is sage advice, but many in China – including the Foreign Minister’s leading subordinates – and other countries have been ignoring this wisdom. China-US Focus authors have comprehensively debunked incorrect claims by Western media and politicians about the pandemic; see, for example, these pieces from Sourabh Gupta and Shen Dingli. But PRC ambassadors, embassies, and other government and media representatives have also been pushing misleading facts and unfounded conspiracies about the origins of the pandemic.  

After some foreign sources suggested that COVID-19 had inadvertently escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which has been a leading Chinese laboratory for researching coronaviruses, Chinese sources started insinuating that the virus had originated in the United States. In mid-March, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian tweeted that some U.S. soldiers might have brought COVID-19 to Wuhan when they competed in a sports competition, the Military World Games, in that city last October. Zhao subsequently retweeted links to conspiratorial Internet stories that argued the virus originated in the United States before its advent in China. Thanks to the Chinese government’s growing social media presence, these tweets rapidly garnered millions of views

This narrative regarding the origin of the virus soon developed into the canard that COVID-19 was launched from a U.S. laboratory, either a facility based in the United States or located abroad and near China. On March 21, The People’s Daily cited people petitioning “the U.S. government [to] disclose more information on the closure of a U.S. Army biological laboratory that may be connected to the outbreak.” The laboratory in question was the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) at Fort Detrick, the leading medical biological defense research facility of the U.S. Department of Defense. The People’s Daily’s article propounded circumstantial evidence that depended on coincidences in timing. According to its chronology, a few months before the new coronavirus was detected in China, USAMRIID was abruptly closed for unspecified safety and security reasons. Additionally, the U.S. government allegedly conducted a “global pandemic exercise” with senior CIA participation. The implication of this false storyline was that the United States had developed a variant of COVID-19 as a weapon and had accidently or deliberately brought the disease to China and later to other countries. 

More recently, Chinese commentators overtly highlighted long-standing Russian allegations that the United States was conducting biological weapons research and development in the laboratories the U.S. government helped to construct in some of the former Soviet republics. The initial purpose of these facilities was to manage the horrific health and ecological consequences of the massive Soviet biological weapons program. In recent years, they have also assumed a leading role in countering natural health threats.

Most prominently, an April 23 article in the Global Times, a nationalist publication that often champions Beijing’s new ‘Wolf Warrior’ diplomacy, said various analysts had observed that while “U.S. politicians keep accusing China's lab in Wuhan as the origin of COVID-19 without providing any evidence, they should respond to the questions on U.S. bio-labs.” The article cited “Song Zhongping, a military expert and TV commentator” as explaining that the United States had “ignored” earlier Russian calls for such an inquiry because “the U.S. is hiding its bio-weapons program." Song added that the United States deliberately built these facilities near China and Russia in order to target its “major strategic competitors” and avoid potential accidents on its home territory. He further proposed that China should join with Russia, as well as “U.S. civilian antiwar organizations and media”, to demand an investigation in the UN Security Council of all U.S. biolabs throughout the world. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang later made similar accusations in his regular news conference and then by Twitter, a day after Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova also warned about the alleged health risks of the U.S. laboratories in former Soviet republics. 

Influential Chinese diplomats openly reject these claims. The Ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, publicly acknowledged that no evidence existed that COVID-19 arose in a weapons laboratory. Furthermore, a delegation that visited the Richard G. Lugar Center for Public Health Research in Tbilisi, led by the PRC Ambassador to Georgia, expressed no concern about its activities and reaffirmed China’s interest in collaborating with Georgian experts in combating the pandemic. Nonetheless, the governments of Georgia and Kazakhstan have had to defend their  laboratories – which are open to foreign visitors and have provided critical national defenses for responding to COVID-19 – against these unfounded and disruptive accusations. 

The Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), officially known as “The Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction”, prohibits the manufacture or use of biological weapons. Any false allegations regarding biological weapons use or possession degrades the convention. If some parties to the treaty believe that other countries are developing biological weapons in violation of the Convention, they might too. Such claims, like those recently purported by Chinese officials and media, also make it harder for supporters of international collaboration to secure popular and official support for such cooperation. Given the strained relations between the United States and the World Health Organization, the next five-year BWC Review Conference, scheduled to occur in 2021, will provide an important opportunity to resolve some of these issues.

The BWC relies heavily on voluntary ethical codes of conduct among the scientific, industrial, and a variety of other communities engaged in biological research. Indeed, new technologies, including the Internet and social media, provide tools for greater means of verification. Netizens can sometimes provide real-time information on emerging biological and other threats. For these normative codes and societal safeguards to work, however, experts and concerned citizens must enjoy freedom to share information with others. More transparency is ultimately necessary to combat biological and other threats or, better yet, deter them. 

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