China Media Cited Made-Up Expert Questioning WHO's COVID 'Lab Leak' Stance

A Swiss biologist widely cited by China's state-owned media outlets in support of the country's coronavirus origins narrative does not actually exist and was likely made up, Switzerland's Embassy in Beijing said on Tuesday in a now viral fact check.

The embassy called for a retraction and correction of all related articles, leading to the widespread scrubbing of news stories, but several references still remain online.

In a Twitter post, the office wrote: "Looking for Wilson Edwards, alleged [Swiss] biologist, cited in press and social media in China over the last several days. If you exist, we would like to meet you! But it is more likely that this is a fake news, and we call on the Chinese press and netizens to take down the posts."

In a Facebook post on July 24—the same day the account was created—the individual named "Wilson Edwards" accused the World Health Organization of politicizing the study of COVID-19's origins. The user also alleged intimidation by the United States and "certain media outlets."

The lengthy post, which characterized the WHO's new origin-tracing plan as "largely politically motivated," was picked up by all of China's mainstream state news organizations and republished in both Chinese and English.

Since at least July 31, the country's official press agency Xinhua and state broadcaster CCTV both carried articles in which the alleged Swiss scientist's sentiments appeared to align with China's own view of the UN health body's new plan.

Phase 2 of origin tracing calls for more access to Wuhan and related research facilities operating at the time of the initial outbreak in late 2019. This would presumably include the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the laboratory at the center of the "lab leak" theory.

Beijing rejected the WHO's proposal two days before the suspicious Facebook account came into being.

The Swiss Embassy's fact check was also posted to Weibo, China's main social media service. Its page was flooded with likes and thousands of comments.

Looking for Wilson Edwards, alleged 🇨🇭 biologist, cited in press and social media in China over the last several days. If you exist, we would like to meet you! But it is more likely that this is a fake news, and we call on the Chinese press and netizens to take down the posts. pic.twitter.com/U6ku5EGibm

— Embassy of Switzerland in Beijing (@SwissEmbChina) August 10, 2021

"In the last several days, a large number of press articles and social media posts citing an alleged Swiss biologist have been published in China. While we appreciate the attention on our country, the Embassy of Switzerland must unfortunately inform the Chinese public that this news is false," it said in a statement in English and Chinese.

The embassy said there were no Swiss citizens registered under the name "Wilson Edwards," and there were no academic articles in biology referencing the name either.

"The Facebook account cited as having published this commentary was only opened on 24 July, 2021, and has only posted this one post so far. It only has 3 friends. It is likely that this Facebook account was not opened for social networking purposes," the embassy concluded.

Its statement added: "While we assume that the spreading of this story was done in good faith by the media and netizens, we kindly ask that anyone having published this story take it down and publish a corrigendum."

The Facebook post was quoted by China News Service, the newspaper China Daily as well as CCTV's international arm, CGTN. It also featured in Communist Party paper People's Daily and its subsidiary the Global Times.

A Facebook post by the People's Daily, in which the comments by Wilson Edwards feature, was still accessible at the time of publication.

Weibo users, some of whom appeared to be mortified by the Swiss Embassy's revelations, commented on their government's recent propaganda efforts.

"There have been too many attempts at narrative control in recent year, like this 'Swiss biologist,'" one wrote.

"This is so awkward. We've lost face in front of the whole world," one replied. "[China's] credibility and reputation is declining," another said.

One commenter described the situation as a prime example of "domestic consumption of exports," suggesting English-language external propaganda had been redirected internally at the Chinese-speaking audience.

Many saw the lighter side of being fact-checked by a foreign government.

A Weibo user said, apparently sarcastically: "Switzerland has no right to question Chinese rumors! Whether a Swiss scientist named Wilson Edwards exists is not for a small country like Switzerland to say! It is up to us, the 1.4 billion Chinese people!"

Swiss Embassy Fact-checks China's State-owned Media
File photo: The World Health Organization headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. The Swiss Embassy in China said the individual named "Wilson Edwards," who accused the WHO of politicizing the study of COVID-19's origins, did not appear to exist. FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images