By Macrina Wang | Published on April 13, 2023
Additional reporting by Eva Maitland and Madeline Roache
An April 12, 2023, video created by Beijing-controlled English-language publication China Daily baselessly claimed that a laboratory in Kazakhstan is run by the U.S. and is conducting secret biological research on the transmission of viruses from camels to humans, with the intent to harm China, NewsGuard has learned. The video cited a purported confirmation of the claim by the chatbot ChatGPT, citing the AI as an authoritative source.
This appears to be the first time that Chinese state-affiliated media has made this specific allegation about a purported U.S. bioweapon in English. Beijing-affiliated media seems to have made the allegation before in Chinese, with a 2021 article by state-affiliated outlet Shanghai Observer that supposedly quoted heavily from the Strategic Culture Foundation, an organization with ties to the Kremlin (whose website has the NewsGuard score 12.5/100). However, Chinese state media’s English-language versions have recently fixated on the Kazakh lab and its relationship to the U.S. more generally, with China Daily (NewsGuard score 44.5/100) publishing three articles about it in the past week alone.
This also appears to be the first time that Chinese state media has cited a chatbot as an authority on a topic in the news.
The video’s narrator claimed, “It is widely known that the United States runs a secret biological laboratory in a Central Asian country, but nobody knows what it is actually doing.” The video identified the Central Asian country in question to be Kazakhstan, and the biological lab to be the Central Reference Laboratory in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
There is no evidence that the U.S. runs any biolabs in Kazakhstan, including the Central Reference Laboratory (CRL).
The video cited purported responses from AI chatbot ChatGPT to support its claim that CRL is run by the U.S. The video displayed a prompt and response by the chatbot. The prompt, written in Chinese, was, “With whom did Kazakhstan establish the Central Reference Laboratory?” The chatbot responded, “The Central Reference Laboratory in Kazakhstan is funded by the U.S. Department of Defense.”
ChatGPT was not designed to be an authoritative source. Indeed, Sam Altman, the CEO of OpenAI, which owns ChatGPT, recently told ABC News, “I’m particularly worried that these models could be used for large-scale disinformation.” NewsGuard has issued two reports on ChatGPT’s propensity to spread misinformation, testing the AI on a sampling of 100 false narratives in the news from among its Misinformation Fingerprints catalog of top falsehoods spreading online. NewsGuard found the current version of ChatGPT spread all 100 of the 100 false narratives. This shows how AI tools such as ChatGPT can be used to support false narratives, including as in this example what appears to be an information operation by a Chinese propaganda outlet. (Here are the NewsGuard reports on ChatGPT’s propensity to provide false information: https://www.newsguardtech.com/misinformation-monitor/march-2023/ and https://www.newsguardtech.com/misinformation-monitor/jan-2023/.)
The CRL was indeed created by Kazakhstan and the United States as part of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Infrastructure Elimination Agreement, and the U.S. did provide funding to the CRL in the past, according to the Kazakh Foreign Ministry’s 2020 statement. However, contrary to the claims made by China Daily, the Kazakh statement added: “The CRL is fully owned by the Republic of Kazakhstan and is currently funded solely from the republican budget. The entire staff consists of domestic specialists. Any work carried out by the CRL is controlled by the ministries of health, education and science, agriculture of the Republic of Kazakhstan. Its activity is focused on ensuring biological safety and security in Kazakhstan, carrying out fundamental and applied research. We declare responsibly that no biological weapons development is underway in Kazakhstan, no research is conducted against any other states.”
The video’s claim that the CRL is “conducting a project on the transmission of viruses from camels to humans” was based on allegations by Aynur Kurmanov, the co-chairman of the Socialist Movement of Kazakhstan. The video said: “Why study camels? Kurmanov offered his speculation. This country borders China and Russia, and camel-farming is well-developed in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur and Inner Mongolia autonomous regions. Mass mortality of camels and cattle can spread diseases from animals to humans, stirring up social unrest and even protests among the ethnic areas of China …”
Kurmanov seems to have made this specific claim since as early as 2021 on social media, in interviews with Kazakh and pro-Kremlin news outlets, and on StopBioweapons.org, a website aimed at ending alleged “U.S. bioweapons labs” that was co-founded by the political organization he belongs to, the Socialist Movement of Kazakhstan.
In a September 2021 article he wrote, Kurmanov based the claim off of the existence of a global health project called “Camels as Biosurveillance Sentinels: Risk at the Human-Camel Interface,” which seems affiliated with the Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore, and which did seem to receive funding from the U.S. Department of Defense. However, there is no evidence that the study has any relationship to bioweapons development. The project description on Duke-NUS’ website said: “Kazakhstan has a large camel population of close to 200,000 animals and several endemic ‘select agents’ identified in the country. Studying pathogen exposure at the camel-human interface will allow us determine high risk areas for the prevalence of a certain pathogen and therefore potential cross-species transmission. Additionally, by understanding the interactions between camels, livestock, bats and their parasitic communities, we can estimate in which areas and under which circumstances spillover events are likely to occur.”
Additionally, much of the purported “evidence” provided by the video was based on unsubstantiated claims first propagated by the Russian government. For example, to demonstrate that mysterious “mass deaths have happened” in Kazakhstan, the video cited an article by “New Eastern Outlook,” a website apparently controlled by Russia’s state Academy of Sciences, which gets a low NewsGuard trust score of 17.5/100.
The video also featured an interview with Chinese military affairs expert Bai Mengchen, who said that the U.S. Department of Defense is “involved in high-risk projects such as the handling of dangerous viruses like the Hantavirus and the Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever.” Bai appeared to be referencing a 2020 Ukrainian study conducted by a joint team of American and Ukrainian researchers and commonly mentioned in Russian state-sponsored misinformation — which tested whether soldiers had been exposed to Crimean-Congo fever and hantaviruses. A U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency spokesperson said in February 2022 that the study “was carried out in compliance with all relevant Ukrainian and American health and safety regulations.”
This claim about a supposed U.S. bioweapons lab by a Chinese government disinformation website could be significant considering how Russia has used the same narrative to justify its invasion of Ukraine. The first claim that the U.S. maintains bioweapons labs in Ukraine was made in November 2021, on a pro-Russia YouTube channel. This “pre-positioned” claim was then cited as an authority by Russian disinformation sites such as RT and Sputnik News when Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, with the claim of U.S. weapons labs used to justify the invasion. (For details, see the Microsoft report, “Defending Ukraine: Early Lessons from the Cyber War,” https://query.prod.cms.rt.microsoft.com/cms/api/am/binary/RE50KOK.)
NewsGuard’s Misinformation Fingerprint explaining the falsity of the claim that the U.S. maintains bioweapons labs in Ukraine and elsewhere in Eastern Europe can be accessed here.
Correction: An earlier version of this story listed the wrong publication date. NewsGuard apologizes for the error.