A guard outside the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick in 2002.

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Hong Kong CNN  — 

As Beijing grapples with a worsening outbreak of the Delta variant, an outlandish conspiracy theory linking the origin of the coronavirus to the United States military has gained renewed traction in China.

The wholly unfounded theory, which claims the virus may have been leaked from a US Army lab, has been repeatedly promoted by Chinese officials and state media since March last year.

But over the past week, Beijing has doubled down on the conspiracy, mobilizing its diplomats and vast propaganda apparatus to call for a World Health Organization (WHO) investigation into the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Maryland.

The campaign comes after Beijing rejected WHO’s proposal for a second-phase probe into the origins of Covid-19 last month. The study would include audits of laboratories and markets in Wuhan, the original epicenter of the pandemic. That has drawn the ire of Beijing, with a top Chinese health official accusing WHO of “disregarding common sense and defying science.”

WHO released an initial report from its Covid origins study in China in March, concluding the lab leak theory was “extremely unlikely.” But a growing number of Western nations and scientists have questioned the thoroughness of the original report, accusing China of “withholding access to complete, original data and samples.”

In late May, US President Joe Biden ordered American intelligence agencies to redouble efforts to look into how the coronavirus originated, including the possibility it emerged from a lab accident.

The intelligence community was required to report back to Biden in 90 days. Since then, no smoking gun has emerged to support the lab leak theory, and many scientists continue to believe the virus is more likely to have jumped naturally from animals to humans. For now, senior intelligence officials say they are genuinely split between the two theories.

Beijing has emphatically rejected the idea the coronavirus could have been leaked from a lab in Wuhan, alleging that Washington is attempting to politicize its origins. And yet at the same time, it is also aggressively pushing a counter-lab leak conspiracy theory without any scientific evidence.

Last month, the state-run Global Times started a campaign calling for people to sign an open letter to WHO demanding an investigation into the Fort Detrick lab. The letter — which only requires a single click online to “sign” — has since gathered 25 million “signatures.”

At a news conference last week, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian called for WHO to investigate both the Fort Detrick lab and a laboratory at the University of North Carolina, helmed by leading US coronavirus expert Ralph Baric.

Zhao also suggested American military athletes who attended the World Military Games in Wuhan in October 2019 could have brought the coronavirus into China — reiterating a baseless claim he made on Twitter in March 2020.

China’s state broadcaster CCTV, meanwhile, aired a 30-minute report this week titled the “dark inside story of Fort Detrick.” On Weibo, China’s heavily censored version of Twitter, a hashtag related to the report was the top trending topic on Tuesday morning. It has since been viewed 420 million times.

On social media, some government and state media accounts promoted yet another groundless theory from an obscure Italian tabloid, which alleged the US military had spread the coronavirus to Italy through a blood donation program. “Damning evidence! The coronavirus entered Europe from Fort Detrick via a US army blood donation program,” read the headline of a widely read story posted by the Communist Youth League, the youth branch of China’s ruling Communist Party.

The concerted propaganda push has further fanned nationalist fury against the US. Some Chinese internet users have accused the US of being “shameless,” while increasing numbers have taken to referring to Covid as the “US virus” — a dig at the term “China virus” repeatedly used by former US President Donald Trump, who lashed out at Beijing as his administration struggled to contain surging cases and deaths in America.

Screengrab of Fort Detrick, Maryland, from David Culver's pkg
CNN finds evidence China is advancing theory that the virus originated in a lab in Maryland
04:12 - Source: CNN

Beijing’s renewed focus on Fort Detrick comes amid the rapid spread of the highly contagious Delta variant across China. Since July 20, the spiraling outbreak — the worst in more than a year — has infected more than 500 people in dozens of cities, placing millions of residents under lockdowns and triggering mass travel restrictions.

The Delta outbreak is posing a major challenge to China’s much heralded “zero-tolerence” approach toward infections, and some prominent Chinese public health experts have suggested the country will eventually need to switch to a new strategy and learn to coexist with the coronavirus.

But that is unlikely to be an easy shift. In China, public tolerance toward infections — even if mild — is extremely low, and fear of the virus still runs high. That is partly because China has been so successful in keeping Covid-19 at bay, but also a result of months of unrelenting state media coverage highlighting the devastation of rampaging infections in Western countries.

Since China contained its initial outbreak, Beijing has repeated blamed local flare-ups on the import of coronavirus from abroad, either through air passengers, frozen food or other goods. The source of the latest outbreak, for instance, has been linked to a flight from Russia.

And with the heightened focus on Fort Detrick, the conspiracy theory has just provided another target for those who want to play the blame game.

US-China friendship at the Olympics

Chinese gymnasts  Tang Xijing and Guan Chenchen, and US gymnast Simone Biles celebrate after the women's balance beam final at the Tokyo Olympics on August 3.

Between the trade war, military tensions and coronavirus finger-pointing, it’s been a rough few years for US-China relations.

But the Tokyo Olympics has allowed athletes from both countries to demonstrate what their governments haven’t for years: friendship.

On Tuesday, Chinese gymnasts Guan Chenchen and Tang Xijing won gold and silver respectively in the women’s balance beam final, while US gymnastics star Simone Biles claimed bronze. Both Chinese gymnasts are first-time Olympic medalists.

The win was particularly significant for Guan as the 16-year-old identifies Biles as her hero, according to her biography on the Games’ website.

After the results were announced, a beaming Biles embraced Guan. Her US teammate and all-around Olympic champion Sunisa Lee, who had loudly cheered on Guan during her routine, also hugged Guan. Afterward, Lee posted on Instagram that she was “so proud” of Guan, and retweeted a video of Guan’s dismount from the beam, captioned, “I love her (so much).”

The enthusiastic celebration and the warmth exchanged between the teams — so rarely seen now as US-China relations and public sentiment sour — quickly went viral online.

“We feel the same! This is what it means,” tweeted the official Chinese Olympic Committee, along with a heart emoji and a photo showing the celebration between the four athletes.

Even the nationalist Chinese tabloid Global Times chipped in, saying in an article Lee’s “sincere and joyous reaction touched viewers around the world.”

And many on the Chinese social media platform Weibo praised Biles and Lee for their sportsmanship, arguing the kind of camaraderie they shared with Guan and Tang embodies the true spirit of the Olympics.

“No matter where you are from, what race you belong to, what beliefs you have, people in international society should unite together, making human life better,” said one Weibo user, according to state media. “I see that hope at the Olympic Games. These athletes give us a good example.”