US President Joe Biden’s call for a renewed investigation into the origins of the coronavirus feels like déjà vu in Beijing.
Just over a year ago, when Covid-19 infections were rising in the US, former President Donald Trump started to promote a then-fringe theory that the virus had escaped from a lab in Wuhan, the Chinese city where it was first detected. Beijing reacted angrily to the claim, accusing Trump of trying to scapegoat China for his own failure to contain the outbreak domestically. This week, a previously undisclosed intelligence report surfaced, claiming that several researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology fell ill in November 2019 and had to be hospitalized. Under mounting public pressure, Biden ordered the intelligence community to intensify its efforts to re-examine how the virus originated, including the possibility that it emerged from a lab accident.
Naturally, that’s drawn the ire of Beijing — again — and prompted it to renew a counter-conspiracy theory that the virus actually started in the US. “The US doesn’t care about facts or truth at all, neither is it interested in a serious scientific study on the origins. Its only aim is to use the pandemic for stigmatization and political manipulation to shift the blame,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian. Zhao then referenced Fort Detrick, a US Army biomedical research laboratory in Maryland that has been linked — without evidence — to the emergence of the virus by Chinese officials and state media outlets. “What secrets are hidden in the suspicion-shrouded Fort Detrick and the over 200 US bio-labs all over the world?” Zhao said, adding that the US “owes an explanation to the world.”
The Fort Detrick theory started to surface in Chinese state media reports last March, but it gained significant traction in China early this year, around the time the World Health Organization (WHO) visited Wuhan to examine the origins of the virus. When that investigation wrapped up in February, the Chinese foreign ministry called for the US to follow its example to “act in a positive, science-based and cooperative manner” and invite WHO experts over “for an origin-tracing study.” In March, the WHO released a report of its investigation in China, concluding it was “extremely unlikely” that the coronavirus leaked from a lab. The report has drawn criticism from governments around the world over questions of transparency. But from Beijing’s point of view, there’s little reason to accept another probe — no matter how hard Washington pushes for it.