Four months after the outbreak of the coronavirus disease in China, investigators are still no closer to determining the origin of what has now produced a global pandemic.
Dr. Liang Wannian, head of a panel of experts on the virus with the China National Health Commission, recently called the virus “cunning” for its unusual characteristics and told reporters in China last week the origin remains a mystery.
But Chinese state-run media outlets are increasingly been promoting a new disinformation theory that the virus originated in the U.S., reports that have prompted rumors spreading throughout China and Asia that the CIA was behind the outbreak.
The agency vehemently denies the charge.
“The CIA does not comment on such outlandish and offensive misinformation,” said CIA Press Secretary Timothy L. Barrett.
Theories of the virus origin range from a natural jump from animal to humans to a medical research study gone band to a secret biological warfare agent. Former Israeli military intelligence officer and medical doctor Dany Shoham, who has studied Chinese biological warfare, said China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology, located in the city that is the epicenter of the outbreak, has been linked to Beijing’s covert bio-weapons program.
The Chinese government and major Western publications have dismissed theories that the virus could be linked to the Wuhan center, while some analysts say Beijing is eager to promote stories shifting the blame.
The state-controlled Xinhua News Agency cited Zhong Nanshan, described as a renowned scientist, as saying that even though the virus first surfaced in China, the disease may have originated outside the country.
“But we cannot say that virus comes from abroad. The question could be answered by tracing the source of the novel coronavirus and getting a result,” Mr. Zhong said.
The People’s Daily published a report Feb. 23 quoting a Japanese press report that said the virus originated in the United States and spread in Wuhan during the military world games held in Wuhan last October. That triggered social media posts in China suggesting the virus was a CIA bioweapon.
Chinese dissident Yang Jianli, president of Citizen Power Initiatives for China, said Chinese government is behind the disinformation campaign about the U.S. origin of the pandemic.
“Many in China believe and spread the rumor that the U.S. launched the virus as a biological bomb through the Military World Games, which were held in Wuhan on Oct. 18 to 27,” Mr. Yang said in a public letter to Vice President Mike Pence.
“Nobody knows the role of the Chinese government in the origin and spread of this rumor. The United States, relevant international organizations like WHO and the United Nations, and indeed the entire international community, should have from the onset of this crisis, pressed the Chinese authorities to provide information about the origin of the virus, or at least allow an international investigation on this question.”
The Washington Times first reported in late January that China’s tightly controlled social media was floating rumors that the Wuhan virus was a U.S. biological weapon.
“Thus does China’s propaganda machine showcase and promote a blame-America story, while not quite taking responsibility — since, after all, it is simply filling us in on speculation and rumor,” said Claudia Rosett, a foreign policy fellow with the Independent Women’s Forum.
“In China’s hothouse of state censorship and surveillance, this is a time-tested way to fuel the rumors the [Communist Party] desires to spread, not to stop them,” she wrote in a recent report.
The Trump administration also has uncovered Russian disinformation being spread on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram linking the virus to the United States. Russian President Vladimir Putin said in Moscow on Wednesday that foreign forces were spreading disinformation in Russia that the virus is circulating there.
The issue of the virus origin also has taken center stage as social media giants Facebook and Twitter have moved to curb free speech on their platforms about the origin of the virus.
“It’s important that everyone has a place to share their experiences and talk about the outbreak, but as our community standards make clear, it’s not OK to share something that puts people in danger,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said this week. “So we’re removing false claims and conspiracy theories that have been flagged by leading global health organizations.”
A report produced by 25 experts from China, Japan, Korea, Nigeria, Russia, Singapore, the United States and the World Health Organization, concluded that the virus dubbed COVID-19 is similar to a virus found in bats.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not changed information on its website that states the first indications were the virus originate from the Wuhan market but that a growing number of patients had no exposure to the market “suggesting animal-to person spread.”
The initial spreading of such rumors was viewed as Chinese propaganda organs preparing to counter charges that China’s bio weapons program was to blame for the epidemic.
A Chinese expert quoted by the government-controlled Global Times said the virus could have begun outside China at multiple locations.
Yang Zhanqiu, deputy director of the pathogen biology department at Wuhan University, said it is possible the virus in Wuhan came from another source through virus hosts like humans and animals.
“We can cut off the source of the virus and better conduct prevention and control work when we know the route of transmission. Therefore, the early infection cases are highly valuable for research,” Mr. Yang said.
ChinaXiv, a Chinese open-source outlet for scientific researchers, reported that virus was introduced to the market from another location and later spread rapidly from market to market.
The British medical journal The Lancet published a report based on a Chinese government-funded study that stated the first patient to contract the disease Dec. 1 had no connection to the seafood market.
Liberal mainstream news media, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, have run stories quoting experts as dismissing all theories of a laboratory origin disease as a “conspiracy theory” — despite the lack of information about the origin of COVID-19.