Latest China Conspiracy Theory: Coronavirus Came from UNC Chapel Hill

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian takes a question at the daily media briefing in Beijing on April 8, 2020. (Photo by GREG BAKER / AFP) (Photo by GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images)
GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images

China’s government-controlled media demanded an investigation into the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill on Monday and, in particular, researcher Ralph Baric — considered one of America’s top coronavirus experts — for allegedly creating the Chinese coronavirus.

The Chinese coronavirus originated in central Wuhan, China; leaked government documents indicate that the Chinese Communist Party documented the first case of human infection with the then-novel virus on November 17, 2019. Chinese officials initially asserted that the infections were the product of human exposure to tainted wildlife at a “wet market,” or open-air butcher complex, and have repeatedly asserted the virus originated in nature.

As concerns grew over the past two years that the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), one of the world’s top research centers for coronaviruses, may have been involved in the first human infections, both Chinese state publications like the Global Times and the Foreign Ministry asserted that a leak of the pathogen from a laboratory was “extremely impossible.”

The Foreign Ministry has since abruptly shifted to accusing various American biological facilities of being the “true” origin location of the virus.

The Global Times accused a UNC laboratory at Chapel Hill, led by Baric, of regularly committing “basic errors and incorrect remedial measures” that could allegedly lead to an unprecedented viral transmission. Neither of the top examples of these alleged documented errors, however, fit a timeline that would result in an outbreak of a highly infectious disease in central China in 2019. In one example, a scientist reportedly dropped a mouse on the floor in 2015; in another, a mouse bit a researcher in April 2020, at least four months into the coronavirus pandemic.

“In August 2015, for instance, a mouse that had been infected with an undisclosed type of ‘mouse adapted’ virus squirmed free of a researcher’s gloved hand and onto the lab floor,” the Global Times claimed. “NIH [National Institutes of Health] officials told ProPublica it was a type of ‘SARS-associated coronavirus.'”

“In April 2020, a mouse flipped over in a researcher’s hand and bit an index finger through two layers of gloves,” the Times observed in another incident. “The mouse bite caused potential exposure to a strain of SARS-CoV-2, which had been adapted for growth in mice, the UNC report said.”

A Chinese government scientist told the state propaganda outlet that this information showed a laboratory leak in the United States was “obviously more likely” than the virus originating in China.

“The international community clearly views the US, which has been hyping up the ‘lab-leak theory’ and engaging in groundless attacks against China, as a major suspect responsible for leaking COVID-19 [Chinese coronavirus],” an anonymous source labeled as an “insider” told the propaganda newspaper.

The Global Times noted that Zhao Lijian, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman who first accused the U.S. Army of being the source of the Chinese coronavirus without evidence, called for a World Health Organization (W.H.O.) probe into the school, and Baric specifically, last month.

The W.H.O. sent investigators to Wuhan over a year after the initial outbreak — and after Chinese officials admitted to destroying early samples of the virus and other key evidence — to conduct an investigation into its origins. The 120-page report resulting from the trip concluded that a laboratory leak was “extremely unlikely” to be the spark that triggered the pandemic, instead concluding the likeliest hypothesis to be that the host animal for the virus infected a secondary species that, in turn, infected humans. The study did not find a single animal testing positive for Chinese coronavirus in China among 80,000 samples.

Prior to the calls to investigate UNC Chapel Hill, Zhao and his colleagues at the Foreign Ministry demanded that Chinese experts be allowed into a U.S. Army facility at Fort Detrick, Maryland, which Zhao accused of being the true source of the virus. The Global Times called Fort Detrick the “#1 suspect” of the origin of the pandemic in June, a claim not supported by any major global scientific voices. Zhao touted the Fort Detrick conspiracy theory as recently as a month ago.

The Foreign Ministry bases its theory that the virus originated in Fort Detrick on the false claim that Maryland saw a higher incidence of vaping-related lung injuries in 2019 than much of the United States. Neither the Foreign Ministry nor the Global Times has explained what they believed to be the relationship between e-cigarette injuries — which are not contagious, unlike the highly transmissible Chinese coronavirus — and the UNC laboratory, if any.

Baric appears to have become a target of the Chinese government because of his public speculation that China’s laboratory safety standards were not sufficient to prevent an outbreak of a pathogen kept at such a facility. Baric signed a letter published in the journal Science in May 2021 demanding further investigation of the possibility the pathogen escaped from a laboratory. Notably omitted from the Global Times accusations against Baric is the fact that he has worked with Shi Zhengli, a top scientist at the Wuhan Institute of Virology known as “batwoman” for her expertise on bat coronaviruses. Unlike its treatment of Baric, the Chinese Communist Party awarded Shi with a nomination for an award in “outstanding science and technology achievement” in June, apparently for her coronavirus research.

According to the MIT Technology Review, which Baric spoke to in July, the American researcher worked with Shi in 2015 on a project “which created a so-called chimera by combining the ‘spike’ gene from a new bat virus with the backbone of a second virus.”

Baric told the publication that his experience with the WIV led him to believe it should have used more stringent safety standards, particularly raising the biosafety level (BSL) from 2 to 3.

“Definitions aside, we know they were doing the work in BSL-2 conditions, which is a much lower safety level than your BSL-3 plus,” Baric said. “Historically, the Chinese have done a lot of their bat coronavirus research under BSL-2 conditions. Obviously, the safety standards of BSL-2 are different than BSL-3, and lab-acquired infections occur much more frequently at BSL-2. There is also much less oversight at BSL-2.”

“Should they have been doing such experiments in a BSL-2 lab? I would not,” he added.

Baric asserted that China “decides their own biological safety conditions and procedures for research, but they should also be held accountable for those decisions, just like any other nation that conducts high-containment biological research.”

“Global standards need to exist, especially for understudied emerging viruses. If you study hundreds of different bat viruses at BSL-2, your luck may eventually run out,” he concluded.

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