The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Chinese state media has seized on a Swiss scientist critical of a covid origins probe. The one problem: He might not exist.

Workers handle swab samples for coronavirus tests at a hospital lab in Yantai, China, on Aug. 7. (Chinatopix/AP)
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Under the name Wilson Edwards, a Facebook user on July 24 penned a post critical of the U.S. position on the World Health Organization’s investigation into the origins of the novel coronavirus. Claiming to be a Swiss biologist, Edwards argued that the probe had been politicized. The Biden administration had “spared no efforts in rebuilding U.S. influence in the organization,” he wrote.

He was wading into hot water: China has rejected new efforts to learn more about how the coronavirus spread to humans, for which the United States and WHO have pushed. Few Western scientists have taken up Beijing’s cause.

It was the United States, not China, that was seeking to influence the investigation into the origins of the coronavirus, Wilson argued, citing sources at the WHO who he claimed had told him: “The U.S. is so obsessed with attacking China on the origin-tracing issue that it is reluctant to open its eyes to the data and findings.”

The post drew wide attention from Chinese state media, which used it to vindicate China’s stance on the investigation. CGTN, China’s state broadcaster, wrote that the post indicated “intimidation” on the part of a WHO advisory group tracing the origins of the coronavirus.

But on Tuesday, Swiss diplomats raised an inconvenient detail: Wilson Edwards does not actually appear to exist. Suggesting that the account was likely a source of “fake news,” the Swiss Embassy in Beijing asked Chinese media companies to take down their stories. CGTN and other outlets appear to have quietly complied.

The dispute over the supposed Swiss biologist and his prominence in Chinese state media came amid continuing disputes about the origin of the coronavirus and a renewed push for the WHO to investigate further. More than a year and a half since the virus was first detected in Wuhan, China, before going on to kill millions around the world, the exact path it took remains unclear.

Though similar epidemics have started when a virus found in animals made the leap to humans, in what is known as zoonotic spread, scientists have not yet found an animal that appears to have directly infected humans. Internationally, some have argued that the virus could have inadvertently infected humans during research on bat coronaviruses in a Wuhan lab.

A joint WHO-China investigation into the origins published a report this year that concluded that zoonotic spread was most likely and dismissed the idea of a lab leak as unlikely and not worthy of further investigation. The report faced immediate criticism from WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

In May, President Biden gave the U.S. intelligence community 90 days for a renewed search for evidence about the origins of the coronavirus. Tedros also called for the WHO to continue its own probe, though Chinese officials suggested last month that it would be “impossible” for Beijing to accept a continuing China-focused probe.

The social media posts by the user going by Wilson Edwards played into this discourse. But even before the embassy stepped in, they came with some red flags. The account appeared to have been created recently and had only three friends. There was no identifying photograph or other information, other than a location set to Bern, Switzerland.

The account did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.

Chinese state media outlets have been accused of using fake identities before. A French journalist named Laurène Beaumond contributed to CGTN’s reporting on the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, helping to portray a brighter image of events there in the face of allegations of mass repression of Uyghur people.

In March, Le Monde reported that there was no such French journalist to be found. The Chinese Foreign Ministry later argued that she existed, despite not being registered officially, but would not say whether she had used her real name.

Chinese state-backed media outlets have suggested without verified evidence that the United States could be where the coronavirus originated. An article in the English-language edition of the Global Times published Monday quoted an unnamed “insider” who said the United States was now considered “a major suspect responsible for leaking Covid-19.”

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