A new study purporting to show that the novel coronavirus was manufactured in a Chinese lab was published by a pair of nonprofit groups linked to Steve Bannon, the former top Trump strategist now facing felony fraud charges.
The study, co-authored by a Chinese virologist who fled Hong Kong this year, claims that “laboratory manipulation is part of the history of SARS-CoV-2.” Its findings were quickly picked up by a handful of prominent news organizations such as the New York Post, which hyped the “explosive” allegations that run counter to virtually all existing scientific literature on the source of the virus.
The study is the work of the Rule of Law Society and the Rule of Law Foundation, sister nonprofit organizations that Bannon was instrumental in creating. According to documents posted on the Society’s website last year, he served as that group’s chair. The Bannon connection was first spotted by Kevin Bird, a Ph.D. candidate at Michigan State University, and shared by Carl Bergstrom, a biology professor at the University of Washington, who called the study “bizarre and unfounded.”
A search of Google Scholar and the Rule of Law Society and Rule of Law Foundation websites indicates that the organizations have not previously published scientific or medical research, and it’s unclear whether the paper received any peer review. It was posted on Monday on the website Zenodo, a publicly available repository of scientific and academic research to which anyone can upload their work.
Both of the nonprofits behind the study were formed in conjunction with exiled Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui, with whom Bannon has collaborated on a number of advocacy efforts targeting the Chinese government and business endeavors that have drawn the scrutiny of federal law enforcement officials.
In addition to their work on the Rule of Law nonprofits, Bannon and Guo have also collaborated on a news website, G News, that has published stories suggesting that the coronavirus was manufactured by the Chinese military.
In July, Bannon appeared to tease forthcoming scientific studies supporting his contention that the coronavirus originated in a lab in Wuhan, China. He told the Daily Mail that scientists from the lab had “defected” to the U.S. and were collaborating with American intelligence agencies. On the “War Room: Pandemic” podcast, Bannon has hosted others who have speculated that the virus may have been a Chinese “bioweapon,” but he has said that he believes the most plausible explanation is that it “came out of experiments that were going on” at that Wuhan lab.
That’s a line that has been echoed by some prominent U.S. officials. President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have both alluded to intelligence reports supporting that theory. “This evidence is circumstantial, to be sure,” wrote Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) in an April column for the Wall Street Journal, “but it all points toward the Wuhan labs.”
While an accidental leak from the virology lab in Wuhan remains a theoretical possible source of the initial outbreak in the city, the vast majority of the scientific literature on the virus has determined that its origins were natural, and that it was not laboratory manufactured. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Trump administration’s coronavirus point-person, has stressed repeatedly that all evidence indicates the virus was not man-made.
The study published by Bannon’s group on Monday is therefore particularly incendiary. “This virus is not from nature,” declared Dr. Li-Meng Yan, one of the scientists who conducted the study, during a Monday appearance on a British talk show. She called reports that the virus originated in a Wuhan meat market “a smoke screen” designed to obscure its true origins.
But other virologists disagree and say the paper makes false claims about a number of basic facts. “Basically, it's all circumstantial and some of it is entirely fictional,” Dr. Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University, told The Daily Beast of the study.
The paper leads with a claim that the coronavirus' genes are "suspiciously similar to that of a bat coronavirus discovered by military laboratories" in China—an assertion Rasmussen says shouldn’t be surprising because “they are related SARS-like coronaviruses.”
The study’s authors made a similar claim about a portion of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein—which viruses use to breach and infect cells—and wrote that it’s similar to the original SARS virus in a “suspicious manner” and suggests genetic manipulation. “SARS-CoV also used ACE2 as a cellular receptor, as do other SARS-like bat coronaviruses,” Rasmussen says. “It is not suspicious and is in fact expected that the receptor binding domains that bind the same protein would be similar.”
Rasmussen also said that the paper misrepresented basic facts about another part of coronavirus spike proteins known as furin cleavage sites. The authors claim that SARS-CoV-2’s cleavage site is “unique” and unseen elsewhere in nature. But according to Rasmussen, “Furin cleavage sites occur naturally in many other beta-CoVs, including MERS-CoV and other SARS-like bat coronaviruses.”
Yan has said that she fled China to avoid reprisals from the government there over her allegations that it was not being forthcoming about the origin and nature of the virus. She said she warned officials in December that the virus was highly transmissible between humans but that her allegations were ignored.
The University of Hong Kong’s school of public health, where Yan was employed, has disputed her allegations that the university failed to heed her warnings prior to the outbreak in China.
In August, Yan appeared on Bannon’s podcast. During that show, Bannon said that he was “still not in the camp that believes they purposely let it out but I’ve been strongly in the camp from the beginning that it came out of the Wuhan P4 lab.”
Unrelated to his work with the Rule of Law groups, Bannon is also facing felony charges over what federal prosecutors say was an effort to extract millions of dollars from a nonprofit seeking to privately finance the construction of a wall on the southern U.S. border. Bannon has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Following publication of this piece, Yan appeared on Fox News host Tucker Carlson's primetime program on Tuesday night. After Yan reiterated her claims that the virus was developed in a lab and that the Chinese government released it intentionally, Carlson—who has become one of Fox's loudest coronavirus skeptics—offered up a big caveat at the end of the interview.
“Unfortunately this is not the forum for the details of your research,” he said. "I don’t have the grounding to ask you the right questions but this is where you wish for a functioning media because what you just said completely changes everything we think we know about the pandemic that is wrecking our country.”
Bannon's name, meanwhile, did not come up once in the segment.
On Thursday, Facebook included a warning on top of a video from the segment posted to Carlson's Facebook page. The video, according to the warning, "repeats information about COVID-19 that independent fact-checkers say is false."
In a separate post, Carlson hit back at the social media company. "This is censorship, and we will be addressing it on our show tonight," he wrote.