Chinese state media outlets have been abuzz with reports of “Philippines influencers” and a petition campaign calling for an investigation into the alleged role of the U.S. Army lab at Fort Detrick, Maryland, in the COVID-19 pandemic.
The campaign in the Philippines, a U.S. defense ally, was spearheaded by journalist and entrepreneur Herman Tiu Laurel. He claims to have been inspired by a similar petition from “Chinese netizens” organized by China’s state-run Global Times newspaper.
Writing in the Manila Times newspaper, pro-Beijing columnist Mauro Gia Samonte approvingly cited various conspiracy theories that Laurel spread regarding Fort Detrick, including “the early presence of a ‘strange flu’ in other countries and the mysterious issues such as the ‘vaping deaths’ emanating from the US around the middle of 2019.”
Samonte claimed that “[b]ecause of impulsive media accounts, largely explained by the hard-line anti-Chinese stance taken by US President Donald Trump during the US presidential campaign, the initial reported outbreak of the killer pathogen in Wuhan placed China as the culprit for the pandemic.”
He added: “Credible accounts, however, have zeroed in on Fort Detrick as the real origin.”
In fact, there is no credible evidence that the virus behind the pandemic came from Fort Detrick – but much evidence that China has spread this unfounded speculation.
Samonte’s claims, and those made by Laurel, largely rehash previously debunked conspiracy theories. China’s attempts to deflect attention about the origin question only intensified after the World Health Organization chief called for another round of investigations. COVID-19 was first identified in Wuhan, China, in late 2019.
In answer to questions from Polygraph.info, Laurel said that he and others calling for an investigation of Fort Detrick are solely incentivized "by our interest in searching for the truth and the facts."
Among other things, Fort Detrick researches pathogens that cause such dangerous diseases as Ebola and tularemia. Competing conspiracy theories, disputed by China, suggest the coronavirus behind the pandemic may have leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), which researched similar viruses from Chinese bats. U.S. grants helped pay for some of WIV's research.
What’s new here is that disinformation from a handful of marginal, pro-Beijing "Philippines influencers” is being amplified by Chinese media to sow more doubt about Fort Detrick. Only a few hundred people have signed on to the petition campaign in the Philippines.
Samonte’s reference to “the early presence of a ‘strange flu’ in other countries” apparently refers to claims that SARS-CoV-2, the official name for the virus behind COVID-19, was present in Europe and the United States prior to the December 2019 outbreak in Wuhan.
One such report said the virus was detected in Barcelona wastewater in March 2019. However, those scientists released a second study in March 2021 showing that the sewage samples had tested positive were actually collected no earlier than January 2020.
Meantime, Chinese state media have repeatedly cited a study by Italy’s National Cancer Institute (INT), which, according to the Reuters news service, found that 11.6% of 959 asymptomatic individuals enrolled in a lung cancer screening trial between September 2019 and March 2020 had developed coronavirus antibodies.
The first blood samples for that trial were taken months before the virus was detected in Wuhan. But an important point is that researchers in the Italian study said their findings did not refute that the virus originated in China. Instead, they could “document that the epidemic in China was not detected in time,” said INT scientific director Giovanni Apolone.
This did not stop China’s state-run CGTN network from baselessly claiming in an editorial that the presence of three U.S. military bases in Northern Italy “adds more fuel to the fire of the Fort Detrick claims.”
Like Chinese state media and diplomats, Samonte also cited March 2020 comments by Robert Redfield, former director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about the Fort Detrick conspiracy theory.
In testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Oversight and Reform in March 2020, then-CDC director Redfield stated that some deaths initially attributed to the flu were actually caused by COVID-19. Redfield provided no details, including when this misattribution took place, and did not refer to Fort Detrick.
Likewise, Samonte raised the case of Michael Melham, the mayor of Belleville, New Jersey, who in late April 2020 tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies. Melham, who had experienced flu-like symptoms in November 2019, attributed those symptoms to COVID-19 without evidence.
Following the lead of Chinese state media, Samonte insinuated that a rash of deaths related to e-cigarettes were actually caused by undiagnosed COVID-19. Maryland was among a number of states that recorded at least 50 hospitalizations and/or deaths from e-cigarette- or vaping-associated lung injury (EVALI).
Scientific studies have clearly shown a strong correlation between Vitamin E acetate, an additive in some vaping products, and EVALI. The CDC said the removal of E acetate from many vaping products, a crackdown on black-market products, and increased public awareness contributed to a drop in EVALI cases.
Samonte further echoed the Global Times by attempting to link Fort Detrick with a rash of illnesses at a Virginia retirement community some 60 miles away from the U.S. Army facility.
Proponents of the Fort Detrick conspiracy theory have long noted that research at the lab was halted in August 2019 after employees of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USMRIID) raised safety concerns. A CDC inspection uncovered two containment breaches. But no exposures or leaks were reported at the facility, and the lab reopened in 2020.
The Philippines petition calling for an investigation into Fort Detrick itself appears to be of questionable origin. While at last count only generating 532 signatures from August 5 to August 11, Chinese state media extensively covered the petition.
A China Daily article described the campaign as having been organized by Manila-based Global Talk News Radio. Global Talk News Radio only broadcasts on the internet every Wednesday from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. and every Sunday on AM radio from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m.
Laurel is identified as a Global Talk News Radio host. Global Times said that Laurel and his colleagues at an NGO called Philippine-BRICS Strategic Studies (Phil-BRICS) decided to push for the investigation of Fort Detrick “as early as the second half of 2020.”
Phil-BRICS describes itself as “a registered non-profit organization dedicated to promoting global multi-polarity and Philippine leadership in global peace and prosperity advocacy.” Phil-BRICS, however, appears to be just a blog hosted on a free platform. Laurel is the only individual cited on the author’s page.
China’s state-run Xinhua news agency referred to Laurel as “a columnist for social news website Sovereign P.H,” and has cited Paglinawan without mentioning his connection to Sovereign P.H.
Phil-BRICS organized a Zoom forum to launch Paglinawan’s book, “No Vaccine for a Virus Called Racism,” to correspond with the launch of the Global Talk News Radio petition.
Polygraph.info reached out to Laurel to determine the extent of his role in managing Global Talk News Radio and Phil-BRICS, as well as the petition. We further asked if Phil-BRICS is registered as a non-profit with the Philippines Securities And Exchange Commission.
Laurel confirmed he was the brainchild for the petition.
"I initiated the Petition to [the] WHO for the opening of investigations on Ft. Detrick and persuaded my colleagues, especially Ado Paglinawan who had already written and published his book, and I campaigned among my colleagues in the Phil-BRICS to write about the issues," he said.
Laurel said Phil-BRICS "is composed of writers, columnists, retired government and military officials, all of whom write in various newspapers here."
He added that Phil-BRICS is a self-funded, online project with no full-time staff or rented office space, though he says it receives small contributions from supporters and tech help from two engineering students.
Both Phil-BRICS and Global Talk News Radio are essentially projects run out of Laurel's home, he said, largely at his own expense.
On June 29, Laurel and Pangiliwan were named as laureates of the Award for Promoting Philippines-China Understanding (APPCU) for 2021. The awards were given at a ceremony on August 6 at the Chinese Embassy in Manila.
Laurel was called “a major figure in fair and accurate reporting about the realities between the Philippines and China, as well as the global vision of China to build a better world for all peoples and the nations.”
Laurel told Polygraph.info the APPCU award was an NGO project launched in 1975 when formal diplomatic relations were established between China and the Philippines.
"The current and first awards went to the likes of former First Lady Imelda R. Marcos and Amb. Francis Chua, and eight others to include me and Paglinawan, hence it can not be construed as a reward for any particular reason but a broad, general and even historical performance," he said.
"I think the U.S. and China should work together for a better world. China has consistently taken a passive and defensive stance to the U.S. State’s aggressive approach," Laurel said. "We in ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) want peace and prosperity –– geography conditions us to desire harmony and cooperation with China. Please help your State listen."