A rescue team disinfecting a theater in Wuhan, China. Xia Junjun/VCG via Getty Images
Chinese state media is spreading a conspiracy theory that a US Army base created the coronavirus.
It’s also pushing unproven claims about the Pfizer vaccine’s safety in older people.
The disinformation push comes as WHO scientists arrive in Wuhan to study the virus’ origins.
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Chinese state media is playing up a conspiracy theory about the novel coronavirus’ origins while also questioning the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine’s safety in older people.
A report from the Associated Press found that state-sponsored media groups had been waging a two-pronged disinformation campaign that seemed meant to deflect responsibility for the coronavirus onto the West and to discredit Western-produced vaccines in favor of Chinese-manufactured ones.
Last week, the hashtag “American’s Ft. Detrick” began trending on the Chinese social-media platform Weibo. The hashtag was started by the Communist Youth League and aimed to push the baseless theory that the coronavirus originated in a lab at the Maryland Army base and not in Wuhan, China, as is the scientific consensus.
A representative for the Chinese Foreign Ministry called for an investigation by the World Health Organization into Fort Detrick.
“If America respects the truth, then please open up Fort Detrick and make public more information about the 200 or more bio-labs outside of the US, and please allow the WHO expert group to go to the US to investigate the origins,” the Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told state media.
Fort Detrick served as ground zero for the US’s biological-weapons program from 1943 to 1969, when it was officially discontinued.
Chinese state media since May has been calling for authorities to look into the location as a possible origin for the coronavirus.
The ubiquity of Weibo has meant the conspiracy theory has spread far and wide among Chinese citizens – the hashtag was viewed more than 1.4 billion times, according to the AP – as has a theory questioning the safety of the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine in older people.
Chinese state media argued that the vaccine wasn’t safe for older people after 23 Norwegian citizens died following the vaccine’s administration. Scientists had long expected that given the massive global rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, some recipients would coincidentally die of unrelated causes.
A WHO report released Friday found that the deaths in Norway were “in line with the expected, all-cause mortality rates and causes of death in the sub-population of frail, elderly individuals, and the available information does not confirm a contributory role for the vaccine in the reported fatal events.”
The Chinese disinformation push comes as Brazilian researchers found that the vaccine developed by Sinovac, a Chinese company, was only 50% effective at preventing symptomatic COVID-19. The researchers had initially described the Sinovac vaccine as 78% effective but hadn’t considered more mild cases during their first review.
The writer Fang Shimin told the AP that the effectiveness rate was “very embarrassing” for the Chinese government and perhaps had prompted it to try to discredit US vaccines.
The Huanan wet market in Wuhan was initially linked to the coronavirus outbreak in China. Dake Kang/AP
In recent weeks, the Chinese government has been criticized for its failure to cooperate with researchers from the World Health Organization who traveled to Wuhan to investigate the virus’ origins.
Furthermore, China has for months rejected the consensus that the coronavirus first appeared in humans in Wuhan.
The first known human cases of the coronavirus were discovered in Wuhan in November 2019 and were initially believed to be connected to the city’s Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market.
In the early months of the pandemic, US government officials including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and President Donald Trump pushed the conspiracy theory that the virus had been created in a lab in Wuhan as a bioweapon.
A report published by infectious-disease researchers in the scientific journal Nature Medicine found no evidence that “any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible.”
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