A Chinese government spokesman said on Thursday that the US Army might have "brought the epidemic to Wuhan," fueling a coronavirus conspiracy theory.
Chinese officials have been trying to reshape the narrative about the coronavirus, suggesting that it might have originated outside of China, even though the center of the outbreak was the central Chinese city of Wuhan.
Amid this push, a conspiracy theory that US athletes participating in the Military World Games in Wuhan last fall brought the coronavirus into China has emerged. There is no evidence supporting this claim.
A Chinese government spokesman said on Thursday that the US Army may have "brought the epidemic to Wuhan," fueling a coronavirus conspiracy theory.
Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, called attention to a comment on Wednesday from Robert Redfield, the director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, acknowledging that some Americans who were said to have died from influenza may have actually died from COVID-19.
"When did patient zero begin in US? How many people are infected?" Zhao wrote on Twitter. "What are the names of the hospitals? It might be US Army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan. Be transparent! Make public your data! US owe us an explanation!"
In a short thread on Twitter — a social media platform that's inaccessible in China — Zhao demanded to know how many of the millions of infections and thousands of deaths during the latest flu season were actually related to COVID-19.
The US State Department summoned Chinese Ambassador to the US Cui Tiankai Friday to protest the spokesman's comments, Reuters reported, and the Pentagon sharply criticized Zhao's remarks, calling them "false and absurd."
—Alyssa Farah (@PentagonPresSec) March 13, 2020
The coronavirus first appeared in the central Chinese city of Wuhan late last year, and since then, the pandemic has claimed the lives of thousands of people, mostly in China.
As China has faced criticism, Chinese authorities have pushed back, suggesting that the virus may have originated somewhere else. Dr. Zhong Nanshan, a leading Chinese epidemiologist, said in late February that "though the COVID-19 was first discovered in China, it does not mean that it originated from China."
Zhao stressed the same point in a recent press briefing.
"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."
One popular coronavirus conspiracy theory that has emerged in China is that US military athletes participating in the Military World Games in Wuhan last year may have brought the virus into China. There is, however, no evidence to support this accusation.
The Trump administration has laid the blame firmly at China's feet. "Unfortunately, rather than using best practices, this outbreak in Wuhan was covered up," the White House national security adviser, Robert O'Brien, told reporters on Wednesday.
"It probably cost the world community two months to respond," he added.
Geng Shuang, another Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, said O'Brien's "immoral and irresponsible" comments denigrated China's efforts to fight the virus. He added that the US should focus on "international cooperation instead of trying to shift the blame."
Update: This post has been updated to include the State Department and Pentagon's reaction to Zhao Lijian's comments.
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