Outlets claim alleged U.S. disinformation campaign was designed to blame the Chinese government for the COVID-19 pandemic
By Hans Hanley
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the origin of the coronavirus has remained unclear. Many scientists have asserted that the most probable source was an animal from a food market in Wuhan, China. In March 2020, though, Chinese state officials pushed back with the claim that the virus was brought to Wuhan by U.S. Army servicemen participating in the World Military Games — an accusation the DFRLab investigated as part of its February 2021 report, “Weaponized: How rumors about COVID-19’s origins led to a narrative arms race.” With renewed interest in the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, though, several pro-Kremlin media outlets are echoing talking points from the Chinese government alleging that the “lab leak” theory — the notion that COVID-19 accidentally leaked from a lab in Wuhan, China — is a U.S.-backed stunt to blame China for the pandemic.
Casting doubt in 2020
In March 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic started to spread throughout the world, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Zhao Lijian insinuated that the virus had originated in the United States via U.S. Army servicemen. This soon began a concerted and well-documented effort by the Chinese state media apparatus to cast doubt on the origins of the novel coronavirus. Taking advantage of uncertainty, Russian actors piggybacked on this narrative to amplify various COVID-19 disinformation campaigns throughout 2020.
As reported by the New York Times, Russian-friendly Twitter accounts began promoting that the coronavirus was a U.S.-made bioweapon. A leaked European Union report found at least 80 instances in which Russia echoed sentiments that COVID was a bioweapon. Two pro-Kremlin disinformation outlets, Global Research and the Strategic Culture Foundation, published pieces alleging that the virus could have started in the United States as a bioweapon. This Russian adoption of Chinese narratives in order to spread disinformation, happening at the beginning of the pandemic, appears to have happened again.
The lab leak theory
In early 2021, the lab leak theory once cast as fringe gained widespread attention. While there is no new evidence supporting the theory and most scientists still assert that the most likely explanation is that the virus had natural origins, the lab leak theory — which posits that the novel coronavirus escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology in late 2019 — has gained traction within the United States. In a recent survey by Morning Consult, nearly half of Americans gave credence to the theory. Given the theory’s renewed popularity, on May 14, 2021, 18 scientists penned a letter in Science magazine arguing for a full investigation of the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. This letter, along with a report by Michael R. Gordon in The Wall Street Journal, sparked a renewed debate of the lab leak theory in Washington. On May 26, 2021, President Joe Biden ordered a “redoubled effort to collect and analyze information” to determine the coronavirus’s origins.
The Chinese government has fought fiercely in the media against the lab leak theory. State-controlled Chinese state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) labeled the theory an example of a U.S. disinformation campaign akin to those also waged against Iran or Iraq.
Calling it a “conspiracy,” Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters, “Some people in the United States completely ignore facts and science.” In a New York Times interview, Shi Zhengli, the top virologist from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, called the theory baseless.
That Chinese outlets and officials have vigorously denied the possibility that COVID-19 leaked from a lab in Wuhan is not surprising. However, in recent months, several pro-Kremlin outlets known for spreading disinformation have echoed these claims, denying the possibility of a lab leak and framing the theory as nothing more than “a CIA-inspired propaganda prank.”
Assigning blame to China
The casting of the lab leak theory as a U.S. disinformation campaign by pro-Kremlin outlets began in earnest in May 2021. On May 18, South Front, a Russian propaganda site with a focus on military and security issues, pushed an opinion piece that the lab leak theory was an attempt to blame China for U.S. and Western failings. On May 19, Strategic Culture Foundation, a Kremlin-linked think tank, further argued that, through the lab leak theory, “China is being set up and is, in fact, a primary target for destruction.” Immediately following the May 26 Biden Administration announcement of their renewed consideration of the coronavirus’s origins, Strategic Culture again called the theory a “cynical opportunity for Washington to ramp up its hostility to Beijing.” On May 30, as reported by Polygon.info, Victor Zuev, a Russian virologist and vice president of the Russian Academy of Science, also echoed that the lab leak theory was bunk, backtracking on previously made statements.
Among news sites owned by Russia’s RIA Novosti, the DFRLab found an even larger effort to label the lab leak theory as U.S. disinformation. On June 5, 2021, columnist Victoria Nikiforova called the lab leak theory “groundless.” Quickly taken up by Chinese news agencies, her comments were then also broadcasted by the Chinese Xinhua news agency.
Sputnik News, also owned by RIA Novosti, soon began publishing a series of articles arguing that the lab leak theory is U.S. disinformation. Thomas W. Pauken II, a Beijing-based commentator on Asia-Pacific affairs and geopolitical consultant, called it a politically motivated “CIA propaganda prank to smear China’s reputation.” The “Sputnik News Radio Critical Hour” called the theory a “China Blame Game” and a means to “obscure how poorly the United States handled the coronavirus pandemic.
Global Research, another pro-Kremlin disinformation site, argued:
The commercial media is full of reports about the possibility that the COVID19 virus was released from a laboratory in Wuhan, China, and the Republican Party is using this unfounded accusation as a means to further its anti-China agenda.
The Fort Detrick theory returns
In addition to labeling the lab leak theory as U.S. disinformation, the Russian government and various aligned news outlets have repeated Chinese media arguments that the virus could have leaked from a lab at Fort Detrick, a U.S. military laboratory in the state of Maryland. While Fort Detrick conspiracy theories can be found going back to the earliest months of the pandemic, Chinese accusations against the Fort Detrick lab began in earnest at the beginning of 2021, with Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Hua Chunying calling for an investigation on January 18. Then, in April 2021, Vyacheslav Volodin the chairman of the lower house of the Russian Duma and close Putin ally, speculated that “the novel coronavirus could be associated with a leak from a U.S. biological laboratory.”
In the following months, both Chinese and Russian outlets continued to echo the same rumors about Fort Detrick. On the same day that President Biden called for a full investigation of the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, Chinese state media demanded that the U.S. bio lab at Fort Detrick also be investigated. Zhao described the lab as “full of suspicion.”
RIA Novosti further amplified these suspicions the following week:
The famous US military biological laboratory, Fort Detrick, suddenly closed in August. The most dangerous viruses and bacteria on the planet were stored and researched at the facility …. In September 2019, a strange lung disease epidemic started in the United States. At first, they said it was linked to vaping … Symptoms of the disease very closely resembled those experienced by COVID-19 patients.
Pro-Kremlin media outlets have engaged in many efforts to spread disinformation throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, from spreading falsehoods about vaccines to promoting fake cures. As the pandemic begins to recede in North America, pro-Kremlin media’s repetition of the Chinese government’s arguments represents another example of how pro-Kremlin media tends to opportunistically amplify narratives that often originate elsewhere.
Hans Hanley is a Research Intern with the DFRLab.
Cite this case study:
Hans Hanley, “Pro-Kremlin media echo Chinese outlets that COVID lab leak theory is a U.S. disinfo campaign,” Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), July 14, 2021, https://medium.com/dfrlab/pro-kremlin-media-echo-chinese-outlets-that-covid-lab-leak-theory-is-a-u-s-disinfo-campaign-7f1bdc28f0a4.
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