While all of the earliest confirmed cases of COVID-19 were recorded in Wuhan in China, the Chinese government is now challenging the belief that the coronavirus started there.
Zhao Lijian, a spokesman from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has raised a theory that the virus actually started in the USA, and was brought to China by US Army competitors in the Military World Games.
The 7th Military World Games were held in Wuhan City from 15 to 30 October 2019. It was the largest event of its type ever to be held in China, with nearly 10,000 athletes from over 100 countries competing in 27 sports.
The Pentagon sent 17 teams with more than 280 athletes and support staff to the games. There is no suggestion that any of them have tested positive for COVID-19.
Iran, where almost 15,000 people have contracted the virus and 853 have died, is also questioning the accepted origin of the disease.
They’re going even further than the Chinese – describing it as a deliberate attack. State propaganda channel PressTV is pushing the the theory that COVID-19 is an American-made bioweapon. Iranian commentators have also said that or that Israeli scientists are using the epidemic as a smokescreen for a targeted attack on Iran.
Iran’s PressTV quoted former CIA counter-terrorism specialist Philip Giraldi, who wrote: "Several reports suggest that there are components of the virus that are related to HIV that could not have occurred naturally."
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An Iranian general, Hossein Salami from the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, appeared on Russian state-backed TV channel RT to say that the virus was a US biological attack on Iran and China.
Rachel Chernaskey, writing for the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said: “One narrative all three countries highlight is the notion that the United States is weaponising the crisis for political gain and thus worsening its spread globally. The crisis for political gain and thus worsening its spread globally.”
She added: “All three countries’ state-sponsored media outlets also published related social media content." She also pointed at a Twitter post from Russian propaganda channel RT which asked: “Who isn’t going to be surprised if it ever gets revealed that #coronavirus is a bioweapon?”
Although Twitter is blocked inside China, government sources have been using the social media platform as a propaganda battlefield.
Zhao tweeted a link to a video showing the director of the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, Robert R. Redfield talking about the recent flu season. Mr Redfield appeared to imply that a small number of the deaths during this latest flu season could have been related to COVID-19.
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Zhao demanded to know how many of the 34 million influenza infections and 20,000 deaths during this latest flu season were related to COVID-19.
“When did patient zero begin in US?” he stormed. “How many people are infected? What are the names of the hospitals? It might be US Army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan. Be transparent! Make public your date! The US owes us an explanation.”
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While Zhao, who has a huge social media following, was tweeting on his own personal account on that occasion, he raised a similar point in his regular press briefing on March 4: ”No conclusion has been reached yet on the origin of the virus," he told reporters, adding that "what we are experiencing now is a global phenomenon with its source still undetermined."
He said that official sources should “avoid stigmatising language toward certain places,” adding: “The name COVID-19 was chosen by the WHO for the purpose of making no connections between the virus and certain places or countries.”
Dr. Zhong Nanshan, a leading Chinese epidemiologist, said at the end of last month that "although the COVID-19 was first discovered in China, [that] does not mean that it originated from China."
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Geng Shuang, a spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs carefully avoided a direct answer to question about Zhao’s remarks in a press conference on Friday. Instead he accused American officials and lawmakers of trying to to “smear and attack” China.
“We are firmly opposed to this,” he said. “In fact, the international community, including the United States at home, have different views on the source of the virus. What I have been saying in recent days is that the Chinese side always believed that this is a scientific issue and requires scientific and professional opinions.”
But the Trump administration has pushed back hard at the Chinese suggestion: “Unfortunately, rather than using best practices, this outbreak in Wuhan was covered up," White House national security adviser Robert O'Brien said in his own briefing this week, that the Chinese “cover-up” probably cost the world “two months” of preparation for the outbreak.
Geng called O’Brien’s remarks "immoral and irresponsible."
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The language of the Trump camp routinely blames China for the outbreak. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has more than once referred to COVID -9 as the “Wuhan virus,” and Kevin McCarthy, Republican representative for California, described it as the “Chinese coronavirus.”
Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas has openly spoken of the theory that the virus was manufactured by the Chinese in a bioweapons lab and said: “We will hold accountable those who inflicted it on the world.”
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Julian B. Gewirtz, a Harvard academic who made a study of the Chinese disinformation campaign around the AIDS crisis, told the New York Times: “There are a few Chinese officials who appear to have gone to the Donald J. Trump School of Diplomacy.”
He added: “The conspiracy theories are a new, low front in what they clearly perceive as a global competition over the narrative of this crisis.”
But it’s not just the Chinese propaganda offensive that’s drawing criticism. Paul Haenle, a former National Security Council official who dealt with China under the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations said of the aggressive anti-China stance: “A lot of these emotional and punishment policies will over time come back to bite us.”
Meanwhile, China is seeking to gain the high ground in the coronavirus battle, by shipping vital medical supplies to virus-devastated Italy – something the EU has so far failed to do – as well as Spain and the US.
Meanwhile here in the UK, Conservative peer Matt Ridley has brought Britain into the argument, tweeting: "When this is all over, amid the terrible human suffering that is now inevitable, is there not a case for demanding some sort of reparations from the Chinese government?"
While the deadly virus still rages across the world, and there’s no clear end in sight to the crisis, the blame game about where it originated has already begun.
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