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Coronavirus

US-China fight over COVID origin escalates with dash of fake news

Beijing rejects new probe in Wuhan and spins alternative theories

China rejected the WHO's proposal for a second phase probe that would look at the Wuhan virology lab, among other possibilities.   © Reuters

DALIAN, China/WASHINGTON -- Recent Chinese state media reports on the coronavirus have heavily featured comments from a Swiss scientist by the name of Wilson Edwards.

Edwards echoes Beijing's claims about a proposed new World Health Organization investigation into the virus's origin potentially becoming a "political tool." He alleges being under "enormous pressure" and "intimidation" from the U.S.

The problem? According to a tweet Tuesday by the Swiss Embassy in Beijing, "Wilson Edwards" does not exist in Swiss citizenship rolls, nor does his name appear in any academic articles on biology.

The apparently nonexistent expert appears to be a pawn used in the blame game between China and the U.S., as Beijing scrambles to head off or discredit American and international efforts to dig deeper into the issue.

The idea that the coronavirus leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology -- which China hawks in the U.S. Republican Party have jumped on -- is particularly contentious.

An Aug. 1 report released by Rep. Michael McCaul, the lead Republican on the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, asserts that "the preponderance of the evidence proves" this theory. It cites satellite imagery showing "a significant uptick in the number of people at local hospitals in September-October of 2019" and "the sudden removal of the WIV's virus and sample database," among other points.

Though President Joe Biden's administration has not embraced the lab leak theory, it is among the possibilities being considered in an investigation ordered by the president in May. The probe by intelligence agencies, which is nearing the end of its 90-day scope, marks a departure from a prior focus on preventing future pandemics.

"Biden was dissatisfied with the Chinese cooperation with American efforts to investigate the origins of the virus," a source close to the administration said, adding that "he was basically indicating to them that we're not going to rest until we have a better understanding of how this virus arose."

CNN reported Aug. 5 that U.S. intelligence agencies had gained access to a massive trove of genetic data from the Wuhan lab and are analyzing it for clues to the origins of the virus.

China has called on the WHO to investigate Fort Detrick, home to a U.S. Army infectious disease research center, for the origin of COVID-19. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army)

Beijing, meanwhile, has objected loudly to suggestions that the virus leaked from the lab, while muddying the waters with theories that it originated elsewhere -- with the U.S. as a favorite target.

"The U.S. should invite WHO experts to investigate Fort Detrick," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian told reporters late last month, referring to an army base in Maryland that is a center for infectious disease research.

The Communist Party-affiliated Global Times reported recently on a petition asking the WHO to look into the facility, which it said had reached 25 million signatures. State-run China Central Television ran a program this month purporting to pull back the curtain on the lab.

China has been pushing its views both at home and abroad. In an earlier news conference, Zhao said that 55 countries had endorsed a letter to WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus "opposing the politicization of the [new] origins study." Many of those he named, such as Cambodia and Venezuela, are friendly to Beijing.

Early this year, teams of WHO experts and Chinese researchers conducted a joint probe into the origins of the coronavirus. Their report concluded that the virus most likely passed to humans via an animal host, while finding that "introduction through a laboratory incident was considered to be an extremely unlikely pathway."

But Tedros in July noted plans for a second phase that would look at the Wuhan virology lab, among other possibilities.

"We are asking China to be transparent, open and [to] cooperate especially on the information, raw data that we asked for in the early days of the pandemic" that was not shared, he said.

Zeng Yixin, vice minister of China's National Health Commission, flatly rejected the idea. "It is impossible for us to accept a plan like this," he told reporters, adding that it "defies science."

The next big development is likely to be the U.S. intelligence report due out this month.

"I don't think that the Biden administration is going to have definitive evidence," said Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund think tank.

But, she added, "I think that the U.S. is going to work hard on building a coalition of countries, to call out China and demand that China allow further investigation. So I think this issue is going to just cause a lot of friction."

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