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As the official coronavirus infection rate closes in on 5 million and the death toll ticks past 315,000, world leaders are calling for an investigation into the origins of the virus in order to better understand how the pandemic began and how the disease spread. But China has other ideas.
Over 100 nations are set to call on the World Health Assembly on Monday to green-light an independent investigation into the origins of the coronavirus. Beijing has already signaled it would block such a move, and instead, has floated the conspiracy theory that the U.S. coronavirus outbreak came from a leak at a U.S. military lab.
In an article published over the weekend in the China Communist Party magazine Quishi, the Chinese government said that “clarifying the source and transmission route of the new coronavirus is essential” to fight the coronavirus.
But the article then goes on to cite partial information or already-debunked reports to bolster its claim that the coronavirus did not originate in the city of Wuhan.
The author of the article specifically highlights the situation in the U.S. — where almost 90,000 people have so far died from coronavirus.
The article cites a paper published in April on variations in the coronavirus — findings already disputed by other scientists — to assert that the virus that exploded in the United States in March “did not come from abroad.”
The author then points out that many people have been questioning why Fort Detrick Biological Laboratory was closed and whether it conducted research into coronaviruses and whether there was a leak from the lab.
Fort Detrick, in Maryland, was the location of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases. It was shut down last August after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found biosafety lapses there. The New York Times reported at the time that the shutdown order came because the lab did not have “sufficient systems in place to decontaminate wastewater” from its highest-security labs. There was no indication that disease-causing materials leaked from the labs.
This is a variation on the conspiracy theory Chinese government officials have already pushed, that U.S. military personnel from Fort Detrick imported the virus to Wuhan in October during the World Military Games.
The theory is also a direct rebuke of a conspiracy theory being boosted by President Donald Trump and his administration that the coronavirus leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology — a theory that has been debunked by most scientists.
However, over the weekend, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo walked back some of his earlier claims that the coronavirus originated at the Wuhan lab, telling Breitbart: “We know it began in Wuhan, but we don't know from where or from whom, and those are important things.”
As part of the argument that China was not the origin of the outbreak, the magazine also cites a confirmed case of coronavirus in France on December 27, claiming the man had no links to China and no travel history before being infected.
What the magazine failed to mention, however, is that the patient's wife worked at a supermarket near Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris and could have come into contact with people who had recently arrived from China.
Both Washington and Beijing have attempted to deflect criticism of their respective handling of the outbreaks in the U.S. and China by placing the blame elsewhere.
These competing narratives and a broader push to establish how, exactly, the coronavirus did spread will dominate the annual two-day meeting of the WHA, the governing body of the World Health Organization.
The meeting, taking place virtually this year, was opened by Chinese President Xi Jinping, who denied any cover-up: “All along, we have acted with openness, transparency and responsibility.”
Already, more than 120 countries have backed a draft resolution from the European Union and Australia calling for an investigation into the origins of COVID-19. The resolution is likely to be put forward Tuesday if it can secure support from two-thirds of the WHA’s 194 member states.
However, hours before the WHA meeting is scheduled to begin, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said Beijing would be unlikely to allow an immediate investigation to begin, labeling it “premature.”
Those comments were reiterated by Xi in his speech to the WHA on Monday, in which he called for “a comprehensive review of the global response to COVID-19,” but only after the pandemic “has been brought under control.”
Cover: A woman wearing a mask against the coronavirus rides past graffiti with the words "Wear your mask properly" in Beijing on Friday, May 15, 2020. Factory output rose in April as China's virus-battered economy reopened but job losses depressed consumer spending, a key driver of growth, in a sign of the challenges the ruling Communist Party faces in reviving normal activity. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)