(CNN)-When researchers from the World Health Organization completed their work in Wuhan this month examining the origins of the coronavirus, Chinese officials were clear where they felt the WHO should look next.
"(We hope) that following China's example, the US side will act in a positive, science-based and cooperative manner on the origin-tracing issue (and) invite WHO experts in for an origin-tracing study," Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said last week.
Going even further, Zeng Guang, chief epidemiologist at the Center for Disease Control in China, said that the US should now be "the focus" of global efforts to trace the virus.
It may at first seem confusing to many that Chinese officials should point to the US when discussing the origins of a virus first detected in central China.
But China has been advancing alternative theories for months now about how the coronavirus first emerged, those that would obviate any blame officials in Wuhan may bear for not responding quickly enough to the original outbreak in that city at the end of 2019, during which they are accused of dragging their feet as evidence of human-to-human spread became apparent and the virus ran rampant.
In particular, one Chinese theory emerged early in the pandemic, but in recent weeks it has gained significant traction, as the WHO investigation and new coronavirus outbreaks in China have renewed both internal and external attention to the alleged failures of the government.
In many ways, this theory is the mirror image of a Chinese conspiracy alleging that the virus might have emerged from a laboratory in Wuhan focused on researching deadly pathogens, either intentionally or by mistake. One of the few definitive statements the WHO team was able to make after their trip to the city this month is that this did not happen.
"(Our) findings suggest that the laboratory incident hypothesis is extremely unlikely to explain introduction of the virus into the human population, and therefore is not a hypothesis that implies to suggest future studies into our work, to support our future work, into the understanding of the origin of the virus," Peter Ben Embarek, a member of the team, said at a press conference announcing their findings held before the team left China.
However, Zeng, the Chinese CDC official, was at the same time advancing just such a hypothesis, not about the Wuhan laboratory, but about Fort Detrick, a biomedical research laboratory for the US Army in Maryland. No proof exists to support this theory.
"The US has biological laboratories all over the world," he told a Shanghai-based website, in an interview which linked Fort Detrick, and the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) based there, to research carried out by the notorious Unit 731 of the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II.
"Why does the US have so many laboratories? What is the purpose of this?" Zeng said. "In many things, the US requires others to be open and transparent. In the end, it turns out that the US itself is often the most opaque."
The idea that the coronavirus may have emerged from a lab, that the pandemic which ground the world to a halt may have been man-made, is not isolated to China. Many US politicians and conspiracists have pushed the idea that a Chinese lab might have been responsible, while others have posited alternative supposed bioweapon creators, including the US itself.
A survey carried out by Pew in April 2020 found that some 30% of Americans believed the virus was created in a lab, with most of those claiming it was created intentionally.
Around that time, leading members of the administration of then-US President Donald Trump, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, tried to link the coronavirus to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, implying it might have escaped — or even been released — from the laboratory.
China angrily dismissed this claim and rebuked it by leading scientists working on the virus. Following an inspection of the laboratory itself this month, the WHO team largely dismissed it as a possible origin of the Wuhan outbreak at a press conference.
Chinese censors tightly controlled speculation about the virus, even that which involved the US, in the first weeks of the pandemic. In January 2020, according to state media, after a video he made claiming the virus was a US bioweapon was watched almost 14,000 times, a man in Inner Mongolia was arrested for spreading rumors.
However, when the Chinese authorities encountered increasing opposition both at home and abroad, this mindset changed. The Trump administration in Washington lashed out at Beijing, flailing in its own domestic response and facing increasing case numbers. Anger grew in China over the death of Li Wenliang, a doctor and whistleblower from Wuhan, who was reprimanded by the police for sharing information about the virus.
Throughout March and April, reports in Chinese state media began to focus on Fort Detrick, culminating in an article in the People's Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Communist Party, calling on the US government to give "clear answers to the world" about the USAMRIID lab.
The genesis of the conspiracy, the nugget of truth upon which all the other false claims have been layered, is an incident from 2019, when CDC inspectors briefly halted research at USAMRIID, over safety concerns. At the time, the lab was working on pathogens including Ebola, Zika, and plague.
A spokeswoman for the lab told the Army Times in 2019 that the issues stemmed from when the lab switched from steam sterilization to a chemical system the previous year.
"The new system necessitated numerous changes in laboratory infrastructure, procedures, and work practices that substantially increased the complexity of operating in containment laboratories," public affairs officer Caree Vander Linden said. "Mechanical issues and human error were among the issues cited by CDC in issuing the suspension."
While both the CDC and many media sources did not find any signs of risk or make any connection to coronaviruses in several public reviews of the 2019 incident, it is easy to see how any report about the laboratory could possibly lead to conspiracies.
Fort Detrick hosted Washington's own aggressive bio-weapons initiative prior to turning its focus to protecting against biological weapons and natural pathogens, which concluded in 1969. It has also been linked during the Cold War to CIA studies into mind control.
With the WHO team headed to China at the start of this year, so too did global attention refocus on Wuhan and the bat lab. As it did, China's propaganda organs ramped up coverage of USAMRIID, with Hua, the foreign ministry spokeswoman, saying on January 18 that the US "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."
A video of Hua, uploaded by the state-backed Beijing News, was viewed almost a million
times on Weibo, the Chinese Twitter-like service. The clip was then picked up by a number of leading Chinese influencers, with millions of followers between them, many of whom appear to be managed by the same marketing company, according to a CNN examination of posts and user profiles.
"Calling something 'rumors' infers a powerful authority whose judgment is instituted and enforced," she said. "Reversely, when such an authority advances an official account that is unverifiable, surely its influences on the public are extraordinary."
According to analysis of Weibo data, around the time the Hua video was going viral, a "Foreign Ministry" hashtag attracted more than 210,000 posts between January 18 and 25, with 790 million views. In the same period, 229,000 posts using the "Fort Detrick" hashtag were viewed more than 1.48 billion times.
According to the DFRLab-AP research, Fort Detrick conspiracies that later appeared on the Chinese language website spread worldwide through Facebook and other platforms, and were picked up in Russia and Iran by politicians.
Meanwhile, back in China, after the WHO inquiry, the country's propaganda organs demanded vindication and blamed both Washington and the Western media for challenging .