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As U.S. intel report looms, Beijing keeps pushing theory that COVID came from outside China

COVID origins report expected this week
COVID origins report expected this week 04:00

Hong Kong — President Biden was expected to see a U.S. intelligence report on the origins of the coronavirus, which he ordered almost 90 days ago, as soon as Tuesday. But regardless of the findings of the American intelligence agencies, Beijing is likely to keep pushing a narrative adopted early by China's Communist Party: That COVID-19 didn't come from China at all.

As CBS News correspondent Ramy Inocencio reports, Beijing has waged a relentless campaign to blame the U.S. for the new disease first reported in the central Chinese city of Wuhan late in 2019.

China's government is angry about what it portrays as Western efforts — led by Washington — to pin the blame for the pandemic on China, and Beijing's criticisms of the looming U.S. intelligence report have gotten more shrill in the days leading up to its expected finalization.

One attack line that has been repeated in Beijing is that Washington will simply use the intel report to make up lies supporting the theory that the virus leaked out of a high-security government lab in Wuhan.

Investigating origins of COVID-19 05:20

COVID-19's origin is a sensitive topic in China, and the pushback against the lab theory is everywhere across the country. In some cases, it is even a literal pushback: Our CBS News team on the ground was pushed and shoved by unidentified people as they tried to gather information in Wuhan.

Several men stopped our crew from interviewing Wuhan native Zhang Hai at his home last week, putting him under a de-facto house arrest and blocking anyone from getting in or out.

We last met him in person in January, as he dared to sue the Wuhan government over his father's death from COVID. He's been told to shut up if journalists come calling.

Speaking to CBS News via Zoom from his home, Zhang said he believes Wuhan is where the global pandemic began.

But in China, that kind of talk is like treason as it directly contradicts Beijing's official narrative.

Despite the world's first known COVID cases emerging in Wuhan, Chinese officials and their allies, including Vice President of the Center for China and Globalization, Victor Gao, accuse the U.S. of engaging in "a conspiracy," trying "to pinpoint the origin to China."

Biden orders intel report on COVID-19 origin 09:08

Gao, a long-time China foreign affairs commentator, insisted to CBS News that the coronavirus "existed earlier than the outbreak of Wuhan in other parts of the world, including, most logically, in the United States, centering on Fort Detrick."

Few Americans even know that the U.S. military's bioweapons program — which was officially shut down in 1969 — was centered at the Army base near Washington D.C., but in China, Fort Detrick is famous. There's even a rap song demanding it be investigated over unsubstantiated rumors, pushed by Chinese commentators, that it could be the true Ground Zero of COVID-19.

Yang Xiyu, a senior researcher at China's Institute of International Studies, claims there's proof that COVID started outside of China.

"You cannot say it's impossible" that COVID may have emerged in Europe or the United States, Yang insisted to CBS News.

Many experts agree that it may, in fact, never be possible to determine the origin of the pandemic with certainty.

How COVID-19 has changed Wuhan, 1 year later 02:55

The World Health Organization was barred from returning to Wuhan after its first visit in January, furthering complaints outside of China over the lack of access and transparency since the beginning of the health crisis.

Asked if he believes the global organization should be allowed to go back in to further its investigation, Yang suggested that no amount of probing would uncover any new truths, and that truth might not be the objective anyway.

"If the second investigation doesn't provide the evidence about the Wuhan lab, then you require the third? Even the fourth?" he said.

The steady drumbeat of propaganda funneled through domestic experts — China's propaganda machine — is clearly working.

"They are bullying us," one Wuhan resident said about the WHO and U.S. investigations. "They are bullying Chinese people. Investigate over and over again."

Another told CBS News that the U.S. was trying to shift the blame onto China.

"The origin was not in Wuhan, it's from U.S.," said a third person in the city, repeating the claim that the virus was "brought here" by U.S. military personnel traveling to Asia.

During CBS News' time in Wuhan, the same vehicles followed our crew during all three days of filming. The same men were always spotted sitting in our hotel lobby, and outside it, trying to take photos.

Chinese officials know that not everyone accepts the Communist Party's line. And that includes Zhang Hai, who has remained a frequent target of China's surveillance campaign since he first spoke up last year following his father's death.

"I hope the U.S. investigation will lead to Chinese officials getting punished and families of victims finally finding comfort," he told CBS News.

The U.S. intelligence report on the origin of the coronavirus was expected to be in President Biden's hands as early as Tuesday. It was unclear when or what the public will actually get to see of it, but Beijing was certain to attack any new criticism, and likely to keep pushing its "anywhere but China" narrative about where COVID-19 began.

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