Over the years, Fort Detrick has housed some of the world’s deadliest substances, from the Ebola virus to nerve gas to anthrax.
Some have feared, justifiably, that such toxins might escape accidentally or be spirited away intentionally. Now, those scenarios provide a convenient backdrop for an ongoing conspiracy theory: that the coronavirus originated at a laboratory at the U.S. Army post in Frederick and not in Wuhan, China, where it was first identified.
It’s a notion that China has spread in what Steve S. Sin, a University of Maryland, College Park researcher of international security and influence operations, called a disinformation campaign to deflect blame for China’s role in the COVID-19 pandemic. Because the Maryland installation has a long history of research involving dangerous germs, at one time seeking to weaponize some of them for biological warfare, there’s a certain logic to setting a coronavirus conspiracy theory there, he said.
“The best lie is founded on a kernel of truth,” said Sin, a division director at the university’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism.
One kernel that Chinese officials and their state-run media have latched onto stems from July 2019, when concerns over the handling of wastewater prompted the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to halt some research at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, or USAMRIID, one of the labs at Fort Detrick.
USAMRIID officials said no bugs leaked out of authorized areas and that it resumed full operations in March 2020.
By then, the coronavirus, which first appeared in Wuhan, had spawned a full-blown pandemic. As U.S. president, Republican Donald Trump took to calling it the “Chinese virus” and another racist slur.
In return, China began to cast suspicions on the Army lab’s alleged role in its spread, demanding in official statements, social media posts and articles in official media outlets that the U.S. open the post to inspectors and talk about the “real reason” for the lab’s closure.
Even more than a year later, Fort Detrick remains a go-to subject for China’s foreign ministry spokesman during his news conferences, and a hashtag in his Twitter feed.
Over time, the conspiracy theory has mutated — like the virus itself — into different variants. Among them: that an Army reservist brought the virus from Fort Detrick to the Military World Games in Wuhan in October 2019, or that a July 2019 outbreak of a respiratory disease at a nursing home in Virginia was actually the first COVID cluster, brought there by — as you might guess — a worker from the fort.
Army officials, for their part, say Fort Detrick had nothing to do with triggering the pandemic, which health experts say began with a cluster of pneumonia cases in Wuhan at the end of 2019 that were caused by a new coronavirus.
“USAMRIID had absolutely no involvement with the novel coronavirus” until more than a year later, the laboratory said in a statement. The lab received its first sample of the virus from the CDC in February 2020 so its scientists could aid in an effort to create COVID tests. The lab went on to develop animal models for vaccine testing.
China contended that it’s the U.S. that engages in disinformation. Democratic U.S. President Joe Biden in May ordered American intelligence officials to step up efforts to investigate competing scenarios on how the virus originated in China, from human contact with an infected animal or a laboratory accident.
“China has been opposed to disinformation of any kind, including the disinformation that the virus was caused by a ‘lab leak’ in Wuhan,” said Liu Pengyu, a spokesman at the Chinese embassy in Washington, in an email responding to The Baltimore Sun’s questions about his government’s focus on Fort Detrick.
“We support a science-based study of the origins, and we also call for greater international solidarity to control the spread of the virus,” he said. “We have noted that the US side has not responded to international concerns about Fort Detrick, and would advise response from it to remove such concerns.”
Michael Ricci, spokesman for Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, said Maryland officials are confident the Chinese suggestions are “baseless.”
“We’re proud of the leading role Fort Detrick has played in the nation’s response to the pandemic,” he said. “What’s most important is that people do not share, spread, or legitimize information.”
On the streets in Frederick, the conspiracy theory tends to be met with dismissive laughter and outright rejection.
Democratic Mayor Michael O’Connor, who lives not far from Detrick, said he goes to sleep every night unworried about any threat from the base. The notion that it somehow was the source of the pandemic? No constituents have brought any such concerns to him, he said.
“It just seems so far-fetched to me,” O’Connor said.
Rick Weldon, a former state delegate who heads the Frederick County Chamber of Commerce, said he doubts the Chinese have convinced many locals.
“There are probably some folks who have a questionable connection to reality … who might believe it,” he said.
Weldon said the area has increasingly evolved from a rural county seat to the kind of place where tech companies such as Leidos and pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca are part of the landscape — with the kind of highly educated workforce they require.
That is in keeping with Fort Detrick’s own shift over time, as it branched out from its original biowarfare mission into research on cancer, infectious diseases and vaccines. It’s the area’s largest employer, and its workers are a big part of community life, Weldon said. “They’re the Little League coaches, they’re in the pews at church.”
During the base’s more forbidding past, scientists sought to develop biological and chemical warfare weapons — including a secret CIA mind-control program using megadoses of LSD and electroshocks on human subjects, a plan to drop yellow fever-infected mosquitoes by plane over an enemy and seemingly all manner of “dirty tricks.”
But by 1969, Republican President Richard Nixon ordered Fort Detrick to conduct only defensive and preventive work.
Still, highly toxic materials remained, raising concern that they could leak, or be misused. There were incidents when carcinogens contaminated groundwater in the previous century and anthrax spores escaped a lab in 2002.
Most notoriously, federal authorities linked a Fort Detrick scientist to the 2001 anthrax mail attacks that killed five people, a connection that not everyone accepts.
It is perhaps unsurprising, given its intrigue-filled history, that Fort Detrick has attracted conspiracy theories over the years. In the 1980s, the Soviet Union started a disinformation campaign that HIV was created at Fort Detrick.
Sin said the HIV campaign provided a model for China.
“China learned a lot about influence operations from Russia,” he said. “Copy, paste, change it to COVID-19.”
Sin said the coronavirus conspiracy theory has had far more success within China than in the U.S., where it has not gained much traction.
Even in Frederick, it has created few ripples.
Dave Ziedelis, executive director of Visit Frederick, the county’s tourism council, said he had to turn to Google to refresh his memory of what little he heard about it.
“It doesn’t come up as a topic of discussion,” he said.
“This is the first I’ve heard of it,” said resident Francis Bowie on a recent afternoon as he cooled off on a shaded bench outside a supermarket near his home.
The retired C-124 airborne radio operator noted that the first COVID cases were reported abroad and on the West Coast — before any reports in Frederick.
“I guess everybody wants to put the blame on somebody else,” he said.
Matt Sharkey, who heads a community advisory board that monitors labs at Fort Detrick and elsewhere in the county, said at a recent board meeting that there is a Reddit forum on the Chinese theory. He said he doesn’t believe it, but USAMRIID and other Fort Detrick labs don’t help themselves on such issues. The board asked the labs to send biosafety experts to its meetings, but they haven’t, he said.
“If they’re being publicly criticized in that manner, this just shows how being nontransparent makes them look like the bad guys,” Sharkey said.
Cheryl Turlik doesn’t believe China’s theory. She has her own: The coronavirus was a bioweapon released “to stop President Trump from being reelected.”
The retired nurse said she contracted COVID in May. She won’t get vaccinated after seeing videos her friends from church and conservative circles shared, convincing her that “lots of people” will die from the shots.
“You probably think I’m a wacko,” Turlik said. “I really don’t care.”
A consumer of conservative media, including Fox News commentators Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham, Turlik said what she calls the mainstream liberal media has misled the public.
“When you are fed lies day after day for five years, you become brainwashed,” Turlik said. “You will believe whatever they tell you.”
In a sense, Turlik represents what Sin says is China’s problem in convincing those in the U.S.
“Not even the American conspiracy theorists are buying it,” he said. “They’re not propagating China’s message.”
Still, public health experts remain concerned about how COVID has spawned a veritable cottage industry of mis- and disinformation — about the virus, the vaccines, alleged remedies and various political conspiracies. The U.S surgeon general this month called the “info-demic” dangerous to people’s health.
Tara Kirk Sell, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, sees the Chinese disinformation as part of the larger “politicization of COVID” that’s aided by how easily messages spread these days.
“Misinformation and disinformation have always been around. But because of the internet and social media, they have a much greater range,” said Sell, who wrote a report this year on combating the spread of bad COVID information for the school’s Center for Health Security.
In the end, the back-and-forth between China and the U.S. only serves to sow discord at a time when unity is needed in the continuing fight against COVID, she said.
“We need to have a global effort, and more division and blame doesn’t help that,” Sell said. “The blame game is not helping us with what we need now, which is getting the rest of the world vaccinated.”