A group of Chinese virologists released a strange new paper on Monday that claims the new coronavirus was engineered in a Chinese lab.
One of the virologists, Li-Meng Yan, told the Fox News host Tucker Carlson it was a “man-made virus” that the Chinese government released “intentionally.”
Yan and her coauthors work for groups cofounded by the former Trump strategist Steve Bannon. He directed the groups before his arrest in August.
Some members of the Trump administration have pushed a fringe theory that the virus accidentally leaked from a lab in Wuhan, China, but there’s no evidence of this.
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Related: How we know the COVID-19 wasn’t made in a lab
A strange new paper claiming the coronavirus was a “laboratory product” quietly made its way into a repository of preliminary research on Monday.
“The laboratory creation of this coronavirus is convenient and can be accomplished in approximately six months,” the paper’s authors, four Chinese virologists who fled to the US earlier this year, wrote.
Li-Meng Yan, the lead author, went a step further in a Tuesday interview with the Fox News host Tucker Carlson.
She told Carlson that her government had “intentionally” released the “man-made virus” — comments that echoed a fringe conspiracy theory that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and President Donald Trump alluded to in May.
But a closer look at Yan and her coauthors’ work shows they’re affiliated with a pair of nonprofits based in New York City, the Rule of Law Society and the Rule of Law Foundation, that were led by the former Trump strategist Steve Bannon before his arrest in August.
Neither organization has any history of publishing scientific or medical research, and the new paper has not been peer-reviewed by other scientists.
Most experts think the coronavirus originated in bats before jumping to people; one study found that it shared 96% of its genetic code with coronaviruses circulating in Chinese bat populations.
Yan’s group, however, suggested that people made the virus using existing bat coronaviruses as “a backbone and/or template.”
Bannon cofounded both groups with an exiled Chinese billionaire
Bannon was arrested in August on charges that he defrauded donors who gave money to the “We Build The Wall” campaign. In January 2019, helped found both Rule of Law groups with an exiled Chinese billionaire, Guo Wengui.
Steve Bannon, a former chief White House strategist.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Guo also founded the site G News, which has published multiple (debunked) stories claiming the coronavirus originated in a Chinese lab and was purposefully spread by the military.
Bannon got $1 million in 2018 for a year’s worth of “strategic consulting services” involving G News, Axios reported.
Guo fled China for New York in 2014 after the Chinese Communist Party accused him of bribery and fraud. He had previously worked with Bannon to accuse CCP officials of corruption.
Yan, formerly a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Hong Kong, told Fox News in July that she was one of the first researchers to study the new coronavirus. But Yan left the university — and China — in April, because she began to worry for her safety after suggesting the CCP and the World Health Organization knew about the virus’ community spread before December, she said.
“I know how they treat whistleblowers,” she told Fox News.
In her interview with Carlson on Tuesday, Yan said she had evidence that showed how China engineered the virus, adding, “I am the target that Chinese Communist Party wants disappeared.”
The University of Hong Kong said in a press release in July that Yan “never conducted any research on human-to-human transmission” of the coronavirus before she left and that her view “has no scientific basis but resembles hearsay.”
‘Poppycock dressed up’ as scienceAn illustration of the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19.
Other experts were quick to speak out against the claims in Yan’s paper.
Carl Bergstrom, a University of Washington biologist who first noticed the paper’s connection to Bannon, called the research “bizarre and unfounded.”
There’s no evidence supporting the theory that the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, was genetically engineered. A March study concluded based on genetic analysis that the coronavirus wasn’t a hodgepodge of existing coronaviruses, as Yan and other supporters of the theory have suggested.
Those researchers wrote that their work indicated that it “is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus,” adding that “the genetic data irrefutably show that SARS-CoV-2 is not derived from any previously used virus backbone.”
On Tuesday, the lead author of that study, Kristian Andersen, said Yan’s group had cherry-picked data in support of their conclusion, adding that it was “poppycock dressed up as ‘science.'”
Twitter, which has a strict policy on tweets containing disputed claims about COVID-19, suspended Yan’s account this week.
The virus probably didn’t leak from a lab either
We still don’t know how the coronavirus pandemic started, or where — and that uncertainty creates fertile territory for unsubstantiated theories.
Early on, many people thought an intermediary animal species first passed the coronavirus from bats to people in a wet market in the city of Wuhan, China, in December. But it turned out that coronavirus infections were spreading in the city weeks before the cluster of cases linked to the market arose. That means the market probably facilitated a superspreader event but wasn’t the pandemic’s origin site.
Another theory suggested that the coronavirus had animal origins but that a sample of it stored at the Wuhan Institute of Virology accidentally leaked.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty
Researchers at that institute do study infectious diseases, including coronaviruses, which led to scrutiny from members of the Trump administration earlier this year.
There’s no evidence, however, that the coronavirus came from a sample stored at that lab.
“It’s highly unlikely this was a lab accident,” Jonna Mazet, a US epidemiologist who has worked with and trained researchers at the Wuhan institute, previously told Business Insider.
Mazet said she helped the staff there develop and implement a “very stringent safety protocol.”
What’s more, Shi Zhengli, a virologist at the institute, said none of the coronavirus samples that had been stored there matched the new coronavirus’ genome.
“That really took a load off my mind,” Shi told Scientific American in April. “I had not slept a wink for days.”
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