As world leaders and epidaemiologists continue to press for transparent investigations into the origins of the coronavirus, Beijing has become increasingly aggressive in its alternative narrative propaganda campaign.
Since the first cases of COVID-19 were detected in Wuhan in December 2019, the information out of China has been murky at best.
Critics have accused Beijing of downplaying the scale and scope of the outbreak when it first emerged, while some theorists speculate that the virus could have escaped from a lab at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).
New evidence has emerged that the lab in question may have ties to the Chinese military.
The US State Department in January accused the WIV of engaging in "secret military activity".
"For more than a year, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has systematically prevented a transparent and thorough investigation of the COVID-19 pandemic's origin, choosing instead to devote enormous resources to deceit and disinformation," it said in a fact sheet published January 15.
"The CCP's deadly obsession with secrecy and control comes at the expense of public health in China and around the world," it said.
That secrecy and culture of deception make further investigation into the origins of the coronavirus, specifically a closer look at the WIV, imperative.
"The WIV has collaborated on publications and secret projects with China's military," the State Department said. "The WIV has engaged in classified research, including laboratory animal experiments, on behalf of the Chinese military since at least 2017."
Another look into the lab leak theory
Those accusations came as World Health Organisation (WHO) investigators finally arrived in Wuhan -- after more than a year of delays and political wrangling -- to begin their research on the origins of the coronavirus.
The highly anticipated WHO investigation came under tight control by Beijing.
Chinese authorities refused to give WHO investigators raw data on early COVID-19 cases, frustrating the international team of experts. After the month-long mission, the participants had no conclusive findings.
Rather than assist in finding the truth, Chinese authorities have instead focused on deflecting blame and calling attention to the "heroic" Chinese response and economic recovery.
Beijing has repeatedly floated theories that the virus came to China through packaging on products such as frozen seafood or suggesting without proof that the virus originated in Italy or the United States.
Those efforts initially seemed to deflect attention from the WIV and the lab leak theory.
But when the WHO team said in its report in March that a leak at the WIV was extremely unlikely, critics, including even WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, dismissed that assertion as hasty.
"I do not believe that this assessment was extensive enough," he said March 30.
In May, US President Joe Biden ordered intelligence agencies to investigate the origin question, including the lab leak theory, and to report to him within 90 days.
Last month, the leaders of the world's wealthiest large democracies, at the G7 summit, urged China to participate in a new investigation into the origins of the coronavirus. They discussed the importance of gaining access to Chinese labs as part of the investigation.
"Transparency matters across the board," Biden said.
"We can't just give China a veto over whether or not we investigate the most terrible pandemic in a century," said Jamie Metzl, who serves on the WHO expert advisory committee on human genome editing.
The military connection
China's refusal to allow an independent investigation into the WIV, or to share data on its research, has only fuelled suspicions about how the pandemic could have taken hold in the same city that hosts an institute known for its work on bat coronaviruses.
The renewed attention on the WIV has put focus on Dr. Shi Zhengli, a top Chinese virologist who directs the WIV's Centre for Emerging Infectious Diseases.
Shi conducted risky experiments with bat coronaviruses in labs with insufficient safety measures, say some scientists. Others say Shi's work with Chinese military scientists at the WIV requires additional investigation.
Even though she denied any connection with the Chinese military during a rare, unscheduled conversation with the New York Times in June, Shi has multiple connections with military officials, NBC News reported.
She and others collaborated with Chinese military scientist Tong Yigang on coronavirus research in the spring of 2018 and with Zhou Yusen in December 2019.
Zhou, a military scientist for the People's Liberation Army, filed a patent for a coronavirus vaccine on February 24, 2020 -- just five weeks after Beijing acknowledged human-to-human transmission of the virus, The Weekend Australian reported.
The revelation raises concerns that the unnamed vaccine was being tested even before the Chinese regime publicly acknowledged the COVID-19 outbreak.
In another mystery, Zhou died under unknown circumstances in May 2020.
Despite Zhou's status as an award-winning military scientist with connections to the WIV, the Chinese media did not report his death and published no tributes to his "heroic" work.
The strong working relationship between Shi and Zhou -- and the regime's silence regarding Zhou's death -- supports the theory that the WIV was engaged in "secret military activity", analysts say.
"I'm very confident that the military was funding a secret programme that did involve coronaviruses," David Asher, a former US State Department investigator, told NBC News. "I heard this from several foreign researchers who observed researchers in that lab in military lab coats."
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Chinese regime has deliberately suppressed or destroyed evidence relating to the virus in an "assault on international transparency", an Australian newspaper, The Saturday Telegraph, reported in May 2020.
It cited a report compiled by the Five Eyes intelligence agencies of the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United Kingdom.
The Chinese government -- to the "endangerment of other countries" -- covered up news of the virus by silencing or "disappearing" doctors who spoke out, destroying evidence of COVID-19 in laboratories and refusing to provide samples to scientists working on a vaccine, the paper said.