Hong Kong CNN  — 

Addressing the world’s economic elite on Monday, Chinese President Xi Jinping said that “containing the coronavirus is the most pressing task for the international community.”

In a speech to the World Economic Forum, Xi called for “closer solidarity and cooperation, more information sharing, and a stronger global response,” as well as “international cooperation on Covid vaccines.”

China has been praised for its “vaccine diplomacy,” promising shots to developing countries and investing in vaccine candidates that do not require expensive cold storage to be effective. But as questions have been raised over the effectiveness of one of those vaccines, the country’s state media has reacted aggressively, targeting not just critics but also other vaccines, in an apparent effort to tear down their reputation in the name of defending the Chinese shots.

Along with hyping reports of deaths allegedly related to vaccines – a dangerous game that could undermine not only confidence in the Pfizer and Moderna candidates targeted by Chinese media, but all coronavirus shots – China’s propaganda organs have also pushed alternate theories about the origins of the pandemic itself, including a long-debunked claim that it began in a US army lab.

“If the United States truly respects facts, it should open the biological lab at Fort Detrick (and) give more transparency to issues like its 200-plus overseas bio-labs,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said last week, adding that the US should invite World Health Organization (WHO) investigators “to conduct origin-tracing” as they are in China.

The leading US military germ lab, Fort Detrick briefly became a trending topic on Chinese social media after Hua’s comments, which were heavily promoted online by the Communist Youth League, among other Party and state-backed accounts. Previously, Chinese officials have suggested – without evidence – that even if the pandemic did originate in Wuhan, the coronavirus could have been brought to the city by US soldiers taking part in the Military World Games in October 2019.

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WHO and China criticized for slow Covid-19 responses
02:34 - Source: CNN

Beijing has also pushed the idea that the virus could have entered the country on frozen food or other goods, despite most outside researchers disputing claims that it could be easily spread this way.

Asked by CNN about her Fort Detrick comments, Hua claimed there was evidence that “the epidemic broke out in multiple places earlier in the autumn of 2019 and there might be links between the seasonal influenza in the US and the epidemic,” adding that it was “not for China, but for the US, to offer the answers.”

Claims that the pandemic had “multiple origins” have not been supported by most scientists, and even if true, do not change the fact that the Chinese city of Wuhan was where the first major outbreak occurred, and where local officials were found to have downplayed the danger, allowing the virus to spread.

Wuhan remains the most likely origin of the pandemic itself, providing scientists with important data about how the virus evolved and what lessons we could draw from this for the future.

After months of delays and diplomatic wrangling, a WHO research team arrived in the city earlier this month to begin an investigation, bringing with them additional scrutiny, which seems to have prompted the sudden resurgence of the Fort Detrick conspiracies.

The WHO team has already said that they have no intention of assigning blame, nor is it necessarily their job to do so. However, any suggestion of uncertainty about the origins of the pandemic, or how the virus first began spreading, will likely be seized upon by Beijing to reinforce the alternative theories state media is already advancing.

New outbreaks of the virus in China itself, after months of having largely got the pandemic under control, also add to the urgency of deflecting blame outwards, particularly as cities are plunged back into lockdown and potential economic misery.

Xi has repeatedly emphasized the success of the Chinese Communist Party in tackling the pandemic, an achievement that is all the more striking when compared with the US and much of western Europe. As it rolls out vaccines both domestically and internationally, the chance of turning the coronavirus from a reputational disaster into a propaganda win must be all the more alluring.

But the promotion of vaccine disinformation could have major repercussions, not only in the US but also in China.

On Monday, Global Times, the state-backed tabloid which has led the charge on attacking the Pfizer and Moderna mRNA-based vaccines, used the death of a single patient in California to claim without evidence that the shots were dangerous. Health experts have said repeatedly that deaths will occur after vaccination – especially in the early stages, when most people inoculated are elderly and sick – but this does not mean they were caused by the shot itself.

Global Times even cited health authorities in Placer county, who it said reject “the link between the person’s death and the vaccine.” But this did not stop the paper using this as a peg to quote anonymous Chinese experts claiming mRNA shots were dangerous and “may contain unknown risks.”

This reporting goes beyond attacking the specific Pfizer shot too, suggesting that the technology used to develop the newer mRNA vaccines is itself untrustworthy – a claim that has no substance and could have repercussions for future Chinese products as well as the existing Pfizer/Moderna shots.

A medical worker waits at a nucleic acid testing centre at a hospital in the Daxing district of Beijing on January 22, 2021, after a partial lockdown was imposed on the Chinese capital.