Updated at 3:50 p.m. ET on May 13, 2020.
The coronavirus that became a global pandemic first surfaced late last year in Wuhan, China. But according to one common narrative making its way around Chinese messaging apps, an American soldier was patient zero. “Chinese netizens and experts” are urging the United States to release health information about a U.S. delegate who attended the Military World Games in Wuhan, asserted a March 25 story from the Global Times.* The publication, an offshoot of the Chinese Communist Party organ People’s Daily, insinuated that a U.S. military cyclist might have brought the disease from Fort Detrick in Maryland. Chatter about American origins of the disease had begun a month earlier, in the wilds of China’s chat services and on tiny YouTube channels. That alone wouldn’t have amounted to much; conspiracies are as common on social media as ants at a picnic, and the small accounts speculating about “bioweapons” and “the USA virus” got little early traction.
But this time, Chinese state media picked up the story from internet chatter and turned it into an international phenomenon involving not only official media channels but influential diplomats as well. State channels with massive Facebook followings backed away from prior acknowledgments that the virus had originated in Wuhan, recasting the idea as merely a theory—just one of many unknowns. Zhao Lijian, the spokesman and deputy director general of the Information Department of China’s Foreign Ministry, speculated to his half-million followers on Twitter that the United States was secretly concealing early 2020 COVID-19 deaths in annual flu counts. In an unusually overt act of tinfoil-hat diplomacy, he shared an article from the notorious anti-American crackpot site GlobalResearch. The headline reads, “COVID-19: Further Evidence that the Virus Originated in the U.S.”