An unverified claim alleging American drugmaker Pfizer’s involvement in COVID-19 experiments has found an audience in China, where it’s being propelled by long-time skeptics of the U.S.
The unproven theory, attributed to a report last week by conservative group Project Veritas, has highlighted the dark underbelly of China’s widely used yet isolated social media platforms and its convergence with anti-American sentiment at a time of intense rivalry between the world’s two largest economies.
In the U.S., right-wing Republican lawmakers with conspiratorial leanings helped boost the claim that Pfizer was deliberating mutating variants of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the COVID disease, adding to years of skepticism that goes back to the early days of the pandemic.
Project Veritas produced what it said was an undercover video between one of its staff members and a senior director at Pfizer, whose comments appeared to echo the group’s theories about the virus. The footage has been viewed 26.5 million times on Twitter since January 26, but it was equally popular on Chinese apps like Douyin, WeChat and Weibo.
On Weibo, which reported over half a billion monthly active users in the third quarter of last year, verified users channeling suspicion of the West in general and of the U.S. in particular helped spread the video, which had 14 million views on the website at the time of publication.
In some cases, the claim was being promoted by China’s state media outlets including CGTN, the international arm of Chinese state broadcaster CCTV. In their rush to add to nationalistic fervor and to undermine the trustworthiness of American institutions, Communist Party-owned publications like China Daily and the Global Times questioned the apparent lack of stateside media coverage, despite what the newspapers said was widespread public concern.
In a statement released last Friday, Pfizer denied any unethical or unlawful research in relation to COVID, saying it “has not conducted gain of function or directed evolution research.”
COVID-related conspiracies can be equally troubling for China, whose post-pandemic reopening risks being undermined by vaccine hesitancy—already an issue among the country’s overly cautious elderly population.
Paxlovid, Pfizer’s oral medication to fight the disease, remains a sought-after drug among Beijing’s political elite, while Germany-based BioNTech, which collaborated with Pfizer to develop the Comirnaty vaccine, partnered with Shanghai’s Fosun Pharma to supply the mRNA shot to China and its territories.
The Pfizer-BioNTech shot also is the only Western vaccine approved for use in China, although so far it has only been supplied to German nationals living in the country. Beijing insists on offering the Chinese public homemade shots based on the “inactivated virus” technology, which studies suggest prevent severe disease and death at higher doses.
The response by China’s state-run press to the latest Pfizer conspiracy has been confused. In an online article for the Chinese-language edition of the Global Times, the same paper known for its hawkish views on the West, an otherwise widely read author warned readers not to take the Project Veritas claim at face value.
He questioned both the identity and the credentials of the alleged Pfizer employee, whose support for the Wuhan lab leak theory—the belief that the virus had been engineered and escaped from a facility in central China—was also omitted from reposts on the Chinese internet, a potentially damaging point for nationalists hoping to blame the U.S. for the pandemic.
In the newspaper’s Weibo post, social media users criticized the author for defending Pfizer, with top comments accusing him of being on the pharmaceutical company’s payroll. The responses from seemingly fringe corners of the internet weren’t dissimilar to vocal conspiracists who occupy social networking sites in the West.
The Weibo commenters aren’t so much vaccine skeptics as they are U.S. skeptics, deeply mistrusting of Washington in the same way their American counterparts suspect most things that come out of Beijing.
Both groups appear to share a common concern about the as-yet-unproved human-made origins of COVID. American officials in the Trump administration pointed to the virus’s origins in China, while Chinese officials countered by claiming SARS-CoV-2 was released by a U.S. military base in Maryland.
Do you have a tip on a world news story that Newsweek should be covering? Do you have a question about China? Let us know via [email protected]