Chinese state media targets UNC lab as US investigates origin of COVID-19 pandemic | WHAT REALLY HAPPENED X-Frame-Options: DENY X-Frame-Options: SAMEORIGIN

Chinese state media targets UNC lab as US investigates origin of COVID-19 pandemic

Chinese state media, which acts as a propaganda arm of the Chinese Communist Party, began circulating conspiracy theories and criticisms in recent weeks about U.S. research labs, including one at UNC-Chapel Hill, in response to U.S.-led investigations into the source of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The effort by the Chinese comes as intelligence officials presented President Joe Biden with an inconclusive and classified report about the origins of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, The Washington Post reported. The intelligence document reportedly does not rule out whether the pathogen jumped from animal to a human or whether it escaped from a lab.

As the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic remains unknown — and possibly unknowable — some politicians and scientists have asked for detailed investigations of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which is located in the city where the first cases of COVID-19 were reported. One investigation by the World Health Organization has received criticism for letting the Chinese government limit its access to the Wuhan lab, ABC News reported.
Chinese officials and its media arms have now begun pushing back by putting forward groundless theories about labs in the U.S., saying they could be the true source of the pandemic and asking for them to be investigated for their research methods, The New York Times reported.

Chinese news outlets have run disinformation campaigns since last year, but they have increased in recent weeks as the intelligence report on the origins of the pandemic was readied, The Times report said.
RALPH BARIC’S LAB AT UNC TARGETED

These Chinese efforts have targeted a number of labs across the U.S., including one on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill and a research facility in Fort Detrick, Maryland, which China has tried to paint as the original source of COVID-19, Reuters reported.

Communist Party publications, like the Global Times and Xinhua, have pumped out articles criticizing the labs, and the articles are spreading on Google News searches. In 2020, the U.S. State Department labeled Xinhua an operative of the Chinese state, The New York Times reported.

UNC has not yet responded to a request for comment on the Chinese state media efforts.

This is not the first time that the UNC lab, which is run by coronavirus expert Ralph Baric, has been targeted online by conspiracy theories around the origin of the coronavirus pandemic. Right-wing news organizations spread false theories on the internet that Baric’s lab helped create the virus that causes the pandemic, The News & Observer previously reported.
Baric is one of the world’s preeminent coronavirus researchers, beginning his study of the family of viruses in the 1990s. Much of his research has informed the world of the dangers coronaviruses.

There is no evidence that Baric’s lab created the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

His lab has drawn criticism, though, for its use of gain-of-function research. Gain-of-function research has gone on for years, though it remains somewhat controversial.

The subset of research involves experiments that take viruses, or other organisms, and alters their genetic make-up to gain a new ability. In viruses, this can mean making it more transmissible or perhaps more deadly.
The research is often intended to demonstrate how viruses could evolve in the near future, and give researchers something on which to test different medical treatments, like vaccines.

But critics have said gain-of-function research presents an opportunity to potentially create a virus capable of causing a pandemic should it make it out of lab. Concerns about the method were high enough in 2014 that the administration of President Barack Obama placed a moratorium on new gain-of-function research.

The ban, which only applied to gain-of-function research that was being conducted on the SARS, MERS and influenza viruses, was lifted in 2017. Gain-of-function research is evaluated on a case-by-case basis with a review board at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services signing off on experiments with high scientific merit.

Baric’s lab has used gain-of-function techniques to show how coronaviruses could evolve to infect humans and to test new vaccine methods to neutralize them.

This research, and his co-byline with a Chinese scientist on a 2015 paper, has made him the subject of many conspiracy theories over the past year over the origin of COVD-19. But the virus Baric used in the 2015 paper is a completely different strain from the one that causes COVID-19.The research is often intended to demonstrate how viruses could evolve in the near future, and give researchers something on which to test different medical treatments, like vaccines.

But critics have said gain-of-function research presents an opportunity to potentially create a virus capable of causing a pandemic should it make it out of lab. Concerns about the method were high enough in 2014 that the administration of President Barack Obama placed a moratorium on new gain-of-function research.

The ban, which only applied to gain-of-function research that was being conducted on the SARS, MERS and influenza viruses, was lifted in 2017. Gain-of-function research is evaluated on a case-by-case basis with a review board at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services signing off on experiments with high scientific merit.

Baric’s lab has used gain-of-function techniques to show how coronaviruses could evolve to infect humans and to test new vaccine methods to neutralize them.

Specifically, Baric’s research showed that bats could spread coronaviruses directly to humans, without going through a different animal host. The research was given an exemption to the gain-of-function moratorium because it was considered vital to protect public health, The MIT Technology Review reported.

In an interview with MIT Technology Review, Baric has expressed concern with how Chinese labs were handling coronavirus research.

Baric’s research has consistently been done in a biosafety level 3 lab, which is the second-highest level of security and is air-locked to keep potential airborne toxins from escaping. Even at BSL-3, though, accidents have happened, including a researcher being bitten by an infected mouse, an investigation from ProPublica reported last year.

Baric said he was concerned that coronaviruses were being studied in BSL-2 labs in China — though he still considered a natural origin of the virus more likely than a lab leak.

Baric and 17 other scientists signed a letter earlier this year that called for a more thorough investigation of the Wuhan lab and the potential of a lab leak.“Let’s face it: there are going to be unknown viruses in guano, or oral swabs, which are oftentimes pooled. And if you’re attempting to culture a virus, you’re going to have novel strains being dropped onto culture cells,” Baric told Technology Review. “Some will grow. You could get recombinants that are unique. And if that was being done at BSL-2, then there are questions you want to ask.”

This story was produced with financial support from a coalition of partners led by Innovate Raleigh as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The N&O maintains full editorial control of the work. Learn more; go to bit.ly/newsinnovate.

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