KEY POINTS

  • A hypothesis alleges that COVID-19 emerged from Fort Detrick
  • A Chinese official called on the U.S. to be 'transparent' 
  • Chinese state-backed media and influencers have picked up the theory

A theory about the origin of the novel coronavirus is exploding on Chinese Twitter after investigators from the World Health Organization wrapped up their work on determining the origins of the virus this month. 

Chinese officials have repeatedly advanced their hypothesis that claims COVID-19 emerged from Fort Detrick, a U.S. Army biomedical research laboratory in Maryland. Zeng Guang, chief epidemiologist at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, also urged WHO investigators to “focus” on the U.S. 

“The U.S. has biological laboratories all over the world," Zeng told a Shanghai-based website. “Why does the U.S. have so many laboratories? What is the purpose of this?”

“In many things, the U.S. requires others to be open and transparent. In the end, it turns out that the U.S. itself is often the most opaque,” he added. 

At a press conference on May 6, China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunyin said there have been reports about Fort Detrick and called on the U.S. government to “accept investigation.”

Her statement led numerous outlets to publish reports accusing the U.S. government of a “cover-up.” The theory faded in the latter half of 2020 but received renewed attention after WHO refocused on Wuhan and the lab headed by a virologist, Shi Zhengli, who became known as "bat woman" for her bat-cave explorations.

Hua also renewed her calls for transparency and urged the U.S. to allow experts from WHO to conduct “origin tracing.”

“The U.S. should open the biological lab at Fort Detrick, give more transparency to issues such as its 200+ overseas bio-labs, and invite WHO experts to conduct origin tracing," Hua said on January 18. 

Beijing News, a state-backed media, uploaded a video of Hua on Weibo — China’s Twitter-like social media platform. The clip continues to get traction online and has since been viewed at least 74 million times, with hundreds of thousands of comments. It was also picked up by numerous Chinese influencers. 

Many of these influencers appear to be managed by the same company, a CNN examination of user-profiles found. 

A further analysis of Weibo data showed that the hashtag “Foreign Ministry” attracted 790 million views across 210,000 posts between Jan. 18 and 25. Meanwhile, over 229,000 posts used the hashtag “Fort Detrick” and were viewed over 1.48 billion times. Most of the popular posts were made by state-run media and private publications with ties to the Chinese government. 

According to the Associated Press's investigation, conspiracies about Fort Detrick started from the Chinese websites and later spread worldwide via other mainstream social media platforms like Facebook.

The four-week World Health Organization mission to China to uncover the origins of the coronavirus wrapped up with no conclusive findings The four-week World Health Organization mission to China to uncover the origins of the coronavirus wrapped up with no conclusive findings Photo: National Institutes of Health / Handout