Even as coronavirus cases spread across the globe, the leaders of the US and China have launched a blame game of who is responsible for the starting the Covid-19 pandemic.
Joining other Washington officials on Monday night, US President Donald Trump labelled Covid-19 the “Chinese virus” against the advice of his own healthcare officials, who warned him naming diseases after regions and countries can create a racist backlash and stigma.
But for the Trump administration, it was yet another sign of its escalating spat with Beijing, where some officials claim the virus started in US military labs.
Last week, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo referred to Covid-19 as the “Wuhan virus”, and on Monday he decried Chinese efforts “to spread disinformation” that holds Washington responsible for the outbreak.
Mr Pompeo called Yang Jiechi, Director of the Office of Foreign Affairs of the Communist Party of China, to lodge an official objection to Beijing’s “efforts to shift blame for Covid-19 to the United States”.
“The Secretary stressed that this is not the time to spread disinformation and outlandish rumours, but rather a time for all nations to come together to fight this common threat,” the State Department said.
On Twitter, Mr Pompeo asked China to acknowledge its role in the rise of the pandemic.
He was referring to comments made online by Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian as well as a Chinese media campaign claiming it has evidence that America is responsible.
Mr Zhao floated a conspiracy theory that the US army had brought the virus to Wuhan.
He tweeted: “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!”
Mr Zhao was the latest in a string of Chinese figures who have implicated Washington despite a dearth of evidence.
Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for the Chinese foreign ministry, hit back on Tuesday at Washington’s comments.
“Some US political figures have kept discrediting China and China’s epidemic response and stigmatising China. Any scheme to slander and smear China has no chance of success,” she said.
The claims and counterclaims seem to have started in late February when medical doctor Zhong Nanshan claimed the virus “may not have originated in China”.
A week later, China’s ambassador to South Africa Lin Songtian tweeted that although the global spread began there it “did not necessarily mean that the virus is originated from China, let alone ‘made in China’.”
In a tweet later shared by Mr Songtian, Mr Zhao has also posted a report he says contains further evidence that the virus originated in the US.
The article in question comes from website globalresearch.ca, founded by Canadian economist Michel Chossudovsky.
Global Research and Mr Chossudovsky have extensively shared widely debunked conspiracy theories about the 9/11 attacks on the US and chemical weapons attacks in Syria.
In 2017, The Associated Press fact-checking team identified the site as a major source in articles online claiming hundreds of thousands of Irish nationals were transported to the US as slaves between the 17th and 20th centuries. The claim has been repeatedly proven to be false and was labelled “racist ahistorical propaganda” in an open letter by 80 respected academics.
In response to the claims by Chinese officials, US defence department spokeswoman Alyssa Farah said “the Communist Party of China has chosen to promulgate false and absurd conspiracy theories”.
But Republican politicians and former Trump officials have also spread conspiracies about the virus.
Steve Bannon, Mr Trump’s former campaign chief, peddled a conspiracy theory about “biological labs that happen to be in Wuhan” and that allegedly created the virus, without evidence.
Another pro-Trump group, America First Policies, blasted the World Health Organisation as an arm of China.
The WHO, it said, “is a case study of how the Chinese Communist Party infects supposedly apolitical institutions”.
On Fox News, Senator Tom Cotton alleged that Wuhan was home to one of China’s leading high-level biosafety laboratories, and “we have to get to the bottom of” where the virus came from. Again, he provided no evidence.
The spat is undermining goodwill between the two countries. Last week, China’s richest man, billionaire Jack Ma, announced he was donating 500,000 coronavirus testing kits and one million surgical masks to the US to help fight the spread.