Some in the West agree. “I am deeply saddened by such serious allegations by the public,” Nancy Connell, a microbiologist and member of the NIH’s National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, told me in February last year when she was with the Johns Hopkins Center. Health protection. “It’s extremely irresponsible.”
But even if the lab leak theory is fueled in part by China’s deep-rooted mistrust, the country’s questionable credibility record and sequence of bizarre mistakes have not helped.
During the outbreak of SARS in 2002-03, Chinese authorities lowered the bar for months until a leading military surgeon blew his whistle. At the beginning of Kovid-19, China also obscured information about the initial case and blocked local discussions. This was exacerbated in March 2020, when several Chinese ministries ruled that scientists would have to seek approval to publish any work related to the Kovid-19 research.
Meanwhile, some Chinese institutions, including the Wuhan Institute of Virology, have instructed their scientists – with rare exceptions – not to speak to the press. For some, this was a relief. Interviewing on politically sensitive topics in English is a taboo subject for many Chinese speakers, as mistakes in any language, especially those involving time and auxiliary verbs, can be easily misunderstood – with serious consequences. At the same time, many Chinese scientists were reluctant to speak to Western journalists for a simpler reason: most of the journalists who approached them said they did not understand the intricacies of science and came up with strong hypotheses.
“I just wanted to keep my head down and focus on my work,” Shea told me. “I thought the storm would blow after a while.”
Some of the behavior of the Wuhan organization has certainly raised red flags. In February 2020, for example, it took its virus databases offline, and it remains unavailable to outsiders-indicating to some that it may contain important information for the origin of Covid-19. Shea told me that part of the database that was publicly available before the epidemic contained only published information; The Wuhan Institute, like research institutes in other parts of the world, has unpublished data that can be shared on request through the portal for educational collaboration. The organization took the databases offline because of security concerns, she says; There have been thousands of hacking attempts since the beginning of the epidemic. “IT managers were really concerned that someone might sabotage the database or, for bad, malicious purposes, plant a virus sequence,” she said.
Instead of directly confronting the propaganda crisis, China has fueled mistrust by conducting ambiguity and false propaganda campaigns in its own way.
However, Zhang of the University of Kent says China’s behavior needs to be understood in the country’s larger political, media and cultural context. China, with its totally different media tradition, “has neither the vocabulary nor the grammar of the Western press to deal with the publicity crisis,” she told me. “The first tendency of Chinese officials is always to shut down communication channels.” For them, she said, this often feels safer than actively coping with the situation. Some top Chinese scientists, who asked not to be named for fear of political consequences, told me that this also shows a lack of trust among China’s top leaders. “While eager to present itself as a global power, China is still terribly insecure,” said one of them.