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Coronavirus Biolabs: When Conspiracy Theory Becomes Diplomatic Strategy

Coronavirus Biolabs: When Conspiracy Theory Becomes Diplomatic Strategy

COVID-19 wasn’t made in a lab, but it couldn’t have been better designed as a subject of misinformation and conspiracy theories. The internet offers hundreds of theories about coronavirus: from it being a hoax covering for the supposed harm caused by 5G technology to a conspiracy of coronavirus vacine containing a microchip. Many of these ideas follow naturally from several longstanding conspiracy theories, with alt-right, anti-vaxx, and other groups claiming that recent events vindicate their beliefs. However, fringe groups aren’t the only people who have taken advantage of the coronavirus misinformation to push their agendas. Several states have also used some of the common themes emerging from COVID-19 conspiracies to further their diplomatic ends.

Zhao Lijian, the spokesperson of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, assumed that the virus was brought to China by US soldiers. On March 12, Zhao Lijian wrote on Twitter "When did patient zero begin in US? 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 data! US owe us an explanation!”. The US soldiers conspiracy theory originated in Chinese social networks, but the fact that it was echoed by state official took it to a new level.

The US got into the game and replied with the Chinese version of the virus origins. On March 16, Donald Trump called COVID-19 the "Chinese virus." The phrasing received many criticism for being racist and Trump had to explain his own words. According to him, by calling coronavirus "the Chinese virus" he wanted to stress the non-US origins of the virus. "Look, everyone knows it came out of China, but I decided we shouldn't make any more of a big deal out of it. I think I made a big deal. I think people understand it. But that all began when they said our soldiers started it. Our soldiers had nothing to do with it," Trump told media.

One piece of the COVID-19 story which has been seized on by officials is the role reportedly played by ‘secret’ laboratories. Fox news brought the idea of the virus being created in a secure Chinese laboratory to mainstream US audiences in April. Donald Trump publicly noted the theory shortly afterwards, declaring that the US is investigating the possibility of virus being created in the Wuhan Laboratory. Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian replied with the statement: "I want to remind you that the head of the World Health Organisation (WHO) has stated many times that there is no evidence that the new coronavirus was produced in the laboratory. Many well-known experts in the world also believe that there is no scientific basis for such claims as laboratory leaks." Interestingly, the same spokesperson in March asserted that the virus was brought to China by the US soldiers.

Russia, who has in the past accused the US of operating secret laboratories in the former Soviet republics, claimed that the US was now developing viruses in those laboratories. On March 17, Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, stated that the development of dangerous pathogenic agents in US laboratories on foreign soil, for potential military purposes, cannot be ruled out. “Moreover, top-ranking Pentagon officials have recently visited [the Lugar Center for Public Health Research in Tbilisi] to persuade Georgian authorities to expand their range of research," Zakharava added, quoting unspecified reports. Russian officials and media have repeatedly expressed suspicions that the Lugar Center may contain a secret biological weapons program run by the US military and private contractors. Russia made its first official statement on the laboratories in 2015,  when Georgia was pursuing NATO membership. Later, Russian media claimed that the US was testing their new biological weapons on the citizens of Georgia, implying that it was safer for Georgia to cooperate with Russia than let the US use Georgian citizens as guinea pigs. Russia has once again brought the US secret laboratory case back and linked it to coronavirus.

Despite the fact that neither the US, China, nor Russia has officially attempted to claim that COVID-19 was laboratory-made, it is nonetheless notable that all three have made public speculations about secret laboratories being responsible for the outbreak. The Russian Lugar Laboratory story was never proved, but is frequently referred to in official statements criticizing the US. The US-China polemics have a very similar context. China accused the US for the critical situation in China and later, when the coronavirus started to rise dramatically in the US, the US used the secret laboratory argument to blame China. Ultimately, the coronavirus pandemic shows how social media conspiracy theories can influence official diplomatic rhetoric.

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