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China Spreading Misinformation Following Renewed COVID-19 Criticism

FILE - In this March 19, 2020, file photo, a biosafety protective suit for handling viral diseases are hung up in a biosafety level 4 training facility at U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Md. (AP Photo/Andr
FILE - In this March 19, 2020, file photo, a biosafety protective suit for handling viral diseases are hung up in a biosafety level 4 training facility at U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Md. (AP Photo/Andr
China Spreading Misinformation Following Renewed COVID-19 Criticism
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China’s government is facing growing criticisms about the country’s vaccines and its early COVID-19 actions. Now, some experts say the government is spreading dangerous misinformation to deflect that criticism.

Chinese state media have recently published stories suggesting that Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine may not be safe. The vaccine passed thorough several safety trials last year as part of an approval process. Last week, a Chinese official spoke about a theory that the new coronavirus may have come from an American military lab.

Such issues are getting media attention because of the rollout of vaccines worldwide. Also, a World Health Organization team recently arrived in Wuhan, China, to investigate the beginning of the virus.

Some of these theories are finding a wide audience within China. For example, the social media hashtag “American’s Ft. Detrick” was seen 1.4 billion times last week. Fort Detrick is a biological weapons laboratory in the U.S. state of Maryland.

The Communist Youth League created the hashtag after a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson suggested the virus came from the lab and urged the WHO to investigate.

U.S.-based writer Fang Shimin said the media activity is an effort to move blame for the health crisis from China to the United States. Fang is known for reporting on dishonesty in China’s science industry.

“The tactic is quite successful because of widespread anti-American sentiment in China,” Fang said.

Yuan Zeng is an expert on Chinese media at the University of Leeds in Britain. She said the government’s stories spread so widely that even well-educated Chinese friends have asked her if the reports might be true.

Creating doubts and spreading unproven theories might add to public health risks, as governments try to reduce unease about vaccines, Yuan added.

“That is super, super dangerous,” she said.

Chinese state media called for an investigation into the deaths of 23 old people in Norway after they received the Pfizer vaccine. CGTN, the English-language station of state broadcaster CCTV, and the Global Times newspaper accused Western media of ignoring the news.

Health experts say deaths unrelated to the vaccine are possible during mass vaccination campaigns. WHO investigators found that the vaccine did not play a part in the Norway deaths.

The state media coverage followed a report by researchers in Brazil who found a Chinese vaccine to be less effective than expected. Researchers at first said Sinovac’s vaccine was 78 percent effective. But the scientists changed that to 50.4 percent after including cases of minor sickness.

“It’s very embarrassing” for the government, Fang said in an email. As a result, China is trying to raise doubts about the Pfizer vaccine and increase support for its own vaccines, Fang said.

Top Chinese government officials have openly voiced concerns about the mRNA vaccines developed by Western drug companies. They use a newer technology than the more traditional method of the Chinese vaccines currently in use.

In December, the director of the Chinese Centers for Disease Control, Gao Fu, said he cannot be sure that mRNA vaccines do not cause risky side effects. “There are safety concerns,” he said.

The Pfizer mRNA vaccine and another one developed by Moderna have passed trials in which they were tested on more than 70,000 people.

The WHO team’s arrival in Wuhan has led to a renewal of accusations that China failed to deal with the virus early enough. Critics say the lack of action permitted COVID-19 to spread worldwide. They note that Chinese officials even punished doctors who tried to warn the public about the virus.

The WHO researchers began fieldwork this week after being released from a 14-day quarantine.

The Communist Party sees the WHO investigation as a political risk, said Jacob Wallis. He is a senior expert at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

The party wants to move attention away from the investigation. It is doing so by changing the story “on where responsibility lies for the emergence of COVID-19,” Wallis said.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying added to that effort last week by urging the WHO to also investigate the U.S. military lab. State media have made note of past events at the lab. But China has provided no hard evidence of a link between the lab and the appearance of the coronavirus.

“If America respects the truth, then please open up Ft. Detrick and make public more information about the 200 or more bio-labs outside of the U.S., and please allow the WHO expert group to go to the U.S. to investigate…,” Hua said.

State media published her comments. They became one of the most popular issues on China’s Sina Weibo.

China is not the only government to blame the pandemic on other countries. Former U.S. President Donald Trump often tried to reduce blame for his administration’s actions during the crisis. He said last year he had seen evidence the virus came from a Wuhan laboratory. Many experts think that theory is unlikely.

I’m Ashley Thompson. And I'm Caty Weaver.

The Associated Press reported this story. Ashley Thompson adapted it for VOA Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.


Words in This Story

deflect - v. to keep (something, such as a question) from affecting or being directed at a person or thing

rollout ​- n. an occasion when a new product or service is first offered for sale or use

tactic - n. an action or method that is planned and used to achieve a particular goal

sentiment - n. ​an attitude or opinion​

doubt - n. a feeling of being unsure about something

super - adj. very or extremely

embarrassing - adj. causing someone to feel foolish in front of other people

allow - v. to permit