- A group of Chinese virologists linked to former Trump strategist Steve Bannon released another paper Thursday claiming the new coronavirus is “an unrestricted bioweapon.”
- The paper suggests that genetic sequences used by scientists to determine the natural origins of the virus are fake.
- One of the authors, Li-Meng Yan, suggested in September that the virus was “man-made” and “intentionally” released by the Chinese government.
- Experts say Yan’s new paper is bogus and her “outlandish claim” about a global scientific cover-up lacks any evidence.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Four Chinese virologists released a paper Thursday that classifies the new coronavirus as “an unrestricted bioweapon,” and claims the pandemic is a result of “unrestricted biowarfare.”
The paper’s lead author, Li-Meng Yan, peddled a similar claim to Fox News host Tucker Carlson last month. Yan told Carlson that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had “intentionally” released the “man-made virus.”
Experts quickly debunked the claim, calling it “bizarre and unfounded.”
The idea that China engineered, then released a lab-made coronavirus echoes a fringe conspiracy theory alluded to by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and President Donald Trump in May.
Yan’s second report doubles down on the theory, accusing scientists from around the world of creating and uploading fake coronavirus sequences from bats and other animals into a genetic data bank. The goal of this effort, according to the paper, is to obscure the “true origin” of the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2.
The authors have little evidence to back-up these accusations, according to Emma Hodcroft, a geneticist who studies the coronavirus with the Nextstrain group in Switzerland.
“To me, the most outlandish claim is that there is a global conspiracy of scientists planting ‘fake’ SARS-like-CoV genomes into public databases in order to lay the groundwork for manufacturing and releasing a deadly variant,” she told Business Insider.
The batty origin of SARS-CoV-2
We still don’t know how the coronavirus pandemic started, or where — and that uncertainty creates fertile territory for unsubstantiated theories.
Most experts think the virus originated in bats before jumping to people. One study found that it shared 96% of its genetic code with coronaviruses sampled from Chinese bat populations.
Labs around the world, including the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China, have collected samples of existing coronaviruses from bats and pangolins prior to the pandemic. By comparing the similarities between those existing sequences to SARS-CoV-2’s genetic code, experts have ruled out the possibility that the virus was genetically engineered.
But Yan’s group suggested in September that Chinese scientists made the virus using existing bat coronaviruses as a “backbone” or “template.”
A March study published in the journal Nature discredited that theory: The study concluded based on genetic analysis that the new coronavirus wasn’t a hodgepodge of existing coronaviruses, a “laboratory construct,” or a “purposefully manipulated virus.”
“The genetic data irrefutably show that SARS-CoV-2 is not derived from any previously used virus backbone,” the researchers wrote.
After Yan’s first paper went live, Twitter suspended her account. The company often flags tweets containing disputed claims about COVID-19.
Accusing scientists of a global conspiracy
In their new paper, Yan and her coauthors argue that scientists deposited fake coronavirus sequences in GenBank, a genetic sequence database run by the National Institutes of Health. The effort, they claimed, was “orchestrated by the CCP government” in an attempt to promote the “natural origin theory” — or the idea that virus originated in animals.
Any scientist that subscribed to the “natural origin theory,” they added, was either misled by scientific fraud or “colluding with the CCP government.”
Angie Rasmussen, a virologist from Columbia University, agreed with Hodcroft that Yan’s claims are unfounded.
“Last I checked, just accusing an entire global community of scientists who rely on evidence to assess data is not itself evidence of said worldwide conspiracy to deliberately cause a pandemic and cover it up,” Rasmussen tweeted Thursday.
What’s more, according to Hodcroft, most of the samples that Yan’s group says are fake predate the start of the pandemic.
“This accusation implies there were years of coordination and fake sequence generation,” Hodcroft said, adding: “This is an incredible claim, and would require a significant evidence burden to back it up, which is missing from the paper.”
The virologists work for nonprofits once led by Steve Bannon
According to their papers, Yan and her coauthors are affiliated with the Rule of Law Society and the Rule of Law Foundation, a pair of nonprofits based in New York City. Both of these groups were led by former Trump strategist Steve Bannon before his arrest in August.
Bannon cofounded the groups with exiled Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui, who previously worked with Bannon to accuse CCP officials of corruption.
The Rule of Law organizations lack any history of publishing scientific or medical research, and neither Yan’s new paper (nor the first one) have been peer-reviewed by other scientists.
In an interview with Fox’s Carlson on Wednesday, Yan said her second paper was reviewed “by top people in US government” before it was published. She didn’t offer any further details about who those people were.
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