A controversial new study getting attention in US conservative media claims the coronavirus was created in a Chinese lab — but the group behind the report is intimately linked to a prominent Trump ally and known China hawk: Steve Bannon.
And all I spoke to said the study is deeply flawed.
The article popped up on September 14 on Zenodo, a website for scientists and academics to upload their work before it has gone through any formal peer-review process. Right-wing media outlets like the New York Post quickly seized on the paper’s conclusion that the virus that causes Covid-19 was potentially man-made at a Chinese facility. The study’s lead author, the 36-year-old Yan Li-Meng, has already appeared on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show to say the Chinese government “intentionally” released the virus into the world.
That’s an explosive allegation that if true would crack the unsolved mystery of the coronavirus’s origins. But despite the boldness of the paper’s claims, there’s considerable evidence that Chinese researchers didn’t bioengineer SARS-CoV-2 and that the government didn’t deploy it as a bioweapon.
(Reminder: SARS-CoV-2 is the name for the coronavirus itself; Covid-19 is the name for the disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus.)
It’s important to note that most experts I spoke to said it remains possible the coronavirus accidentally leaked out of a lab. There is a major virology lab located in Wuhan, the Chinese city where the coronavirus was first identified. At that facility, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, researchers study samples of bat coronaviruses (and other viruses) collected from the wild and reportedly conduct risky “gain-of-function” research on them, manipulating them in experiments to test their pandemic threat.
But it appears Yan and her three co-authors haven’t changed many minds in the scientific community with their reasoning for why this coronavirus appears to be bioengineered.
“It’s deeply speculative, and the scenarios proposed are not very believable,” said Alina Chan, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University and MIT’s Broad Institute. Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University, told me the study “is totally bogus.”
Other experts were similarly dumbfounded by the paper, especially since Yan has a prolific and solid publication record on infectious diseases. “You know better than to put your name behind this utter garbage, much less write it yourself,” Jasnah Kholin, Yan’s former colleague at the University of Hong Kong (who uses an alias online), tweeted on Tuesday. Twitter suspended Yan’s account on Wednesday for her lead role in writing the fact-challenged paper.
Why, though, is Yan’s study so bad, especially with her once-sterling credentials? The reason may have a lot to do with Bannon’s years-long effort to discredit China no matter the cost — and Yan’s willingness to help.
“This all plays into Bannon’s larger argument about China and the threat it poses to everybody on the planet,” said Michael Swaine, an expert on Chinese security issues at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank in Washington. “It just serves his interests.”
What the Bannon-backed, Yan-led coronavirus study actually says
Before getting to why Bannon and Yan work together, it’s worth quickly going through the main claim and three strands of supporting evidence Yan and her team offered in their study, titled “Unusual Features of the SARS-CoV-2 Genome Suggesting Sophisticated Laboratory Modification Rather Than Natural Evolution and Delineation of Its Probable Synthetic Route.”
Their headline assertion is that the mainstream view of SARS-CoV-2 as a naturally occurring virus “lacks substantial support,” and that the virus “shows biological characteristics that are inconsistent with a naturally occurring, zoonotic virus.” They stress “the need for an independent investigation into the relevant research laboratories,” but don’t identify one in particular, including the facility in Wuhan.
For many experts, the notion that the disease might be man-made by Chinese researchers isn’t a wild one.
“Given the moral antipathy and the secrecy surrounding any biological weapons program, and given the difficulty of differentiating a naturally occurring outbreak and a deliberately caused one, it is not entirely invalid or illegitimate to suspect the virus was man-made,” said Yanzhong Huang, a global health expert at the Council on Foreign Relations think tank. “I don’t challenge Dr. Yan’s credentials in making such bold arguments.”
And Chan, the Broad Institute fellow who dismisses Yan’s paper, noted that similar coronaviruses have been found in labs as early as 2013.
The question of whether Chinese scientists created this specific coronavirus in a lab, then, is worth trying to prove. Successfully doing so is an entirely different matter — and the three pieces of evidence the Yan-led researchers offer are “easily disproven,” said Columbia’s Rasmussen.
First, the authors say the virus’s genes look “suspiciously similar to that of a bat coronavirus discovered by military laboratories” elsewhere in China. That seems bad, but Rasmussen notes that it makes sense this disease would have similar-looking genes to other coronaviruses because it is a coronavirus. “They are similar because they are related,” she said.
Second, Yan’s team says part of the spike protein the current coronavirus uses to infect cells looks like the 2003 SARS spike protein “in a suspicious manner.” In other words, they’re implying the virus isn’t natural — someone changed it. But that’s not the case, Rasmussen says: Those “are found in other coronaviruses. They arose naturally and coincidentally.”
Third, the paper states the SARS-CoV-2 virus has a “unique” furin cleavage site — a section of the spike protein — asserting that such a feature isn’t found in the natural world. But Rasmussen said many coronaviruses have these sites, including the 2012 MERS coronavirus first found in the Middle East. “This proves exactly nothing,” she told me.
Altogether, there’s just little Yan’s team offered to convince their peers they found what they say they found. There’s always fierce debate in academic and scientific literature, of course, but the easily refuted assertions make it hard to take much of what they wrote seriously.
Plus, as Huang told me, “that the paper was not peer-reviewed and was backed by a political nonprofit raises further questions on the credibility of the paper.”
This is where we find Bannon.
Yan and Bannon have a mutually beneficial relationship
Yan’s study was published by the Rule of Law Society and the Rule of Law Foundation, two New York City-based groups Bannon helped create alongside Guo Wengui, a Chinese dissident and billionaire who has long sought political asylum in the US after facing bribery, fraud, and money-laundering charges back home. It was on Guo’s yacht that US Postal Service officers arrested Bannon last month for defrauding donors to another, unrelated nonprofit.
The main goal both organizations share is to expose malfeasance by the Chinese Communist Party-led government, a target Bannon has worked tirelessly to embarrass and overthrow. Their mission dovetails nicely with the work of G News, a Bannon- and Guo-supported website that has already published articles asserting — without clear evidence — that China’s military created the coronavirus.
Bannon — the former executive chairman of Breitbart News who led Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and worked as Trump’s White House chief strategist — has for years blamed China for harming America’s economy via unfair trade practices and theft of intellectual property. In Guo, Bannon clearly found an ally with whom to combat the Chinese regime.
“Guo has been the toughest Chinese opponent the CCP has ever encountered,” Bannon told the Washington Post on Sunday, using an acronym for the Chinese Communist Party. “He has been the world’s leading fighter exposing the lies, the infiltration, and the malevolence of the CCP.”
Yan is also not a fan of the Chinese government. She fled Hong Kong for the United States in April out of fear of political persecution.
She told Fox News in July that she had evidence the Chinese government knew the disease transferred between humans back in December, aiming to blow the whistle on the regime, but that her then-superiors at the University of Hong Kong’s public health laboratory — a World Health Organization research center — had told her to keep quiet. The university denies any of that happened.
While in the US, Yan linked up with the Bannon- and Guo-backed nonprofits, though it remains unclear exactly when or why (she didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment).
She is not “in hiding.” She is going around with Guo Wengui’s sidekicks Lude and Bannon, who are on an image-salvaging operation to make themselves look connected to Trump. Her reflection is in this picture next to Bannon during Lude’s photo op with Rudy Giuliani. pic.twitter.com/lyEwizVw4V
— J Michael Waller (@JMichaelWaller) September 12, 2020
The general suspicion, including among those who don’t like her recent paper, is that she found a group of people who share her view that the Chinese government purposefully put the world in danger. Yan wanted a place to offer that analysis and keep safe from the regime, and staying in Hong Kong — amid a Beijing-backed crackdown on dissent — wasn’t an option.
Kholin, Yan’s former colleague at the university who bashed her paper, told me Yan “is not safe here.”
Coming to the US and joining Bannon and Guo’s projects offered her a prominent platform to say her piece. “I could not stay silent,” Yan told the UK’s Daily Mail in August. “I could see China was covering up the truth and I had to do something since I was a professional who could explain it.”
If there is one thing that this entire saga has made clear – it is that whistleblowers (as it pertains to SARS2) have no obvious safe route of sharing their information.
Seriously, who should a SARS2 origins whistleblower go to? Besides this anti-CCP billionaire + Bannon et al.?
— Alina Chan (@Ayjchan) September 17, 2020
The best approach to obtaining the truth from a whistleblower is to remove their dependency on their host/savior. Someone who they now have to rely on for security the rest of their life. Do people seriously think that this is not a consideration for whistleblowers?
— Alina Chan (@Ayjchan) September 17, 2020
Bannon and Guo likely didn’t bring Yan in solely out of the goodness of their hearts. Having a Chinese virologist with sterling credentials make the case that the Chinese Communist Party created and unleashed the coronavirus on the world is far more powerful than having Bannon or Guo say it.
Since associating herself with Bannon and Guo, she’s made a steady stream of appearances on their various media outlets, including Bannon’s podcast in August, to discuss her views on the Chinese government and the coronavirus. Her analysis at the time, though, was more political than scientific.
“If this is something come from nature, the government has no responsibility for that. Why do they recruit such big force to stop people from understanding what happened?” she said. “If this is an accident come from some lab in China … why don’t they try to stop it?”
“They don’t need to hide this kind of truth if this has a nature origins,” she concluded, later calling the Communist Party’s actions “evil.”
She’s gone on to serve as Bannon’s key witness of sorts on the China coronavirus issue. Over time, though, she’s also adopted positions that fit popular narratives among conservatives.
Namely, she’s promoted hydroxychloroquine as effective against Covid-19 — echoing Trump and other prominent conservatives — despite ample scientific evidence against that claim. G News, the Bannon and Guo-backed website, publicized her comments on the drug. Whether she truly believes the medication is helpful or is just boosting conservative talking points to stay in Bannon and Guo’s good graces is unclear.
Kholin thinks it’s the latter. “I think it’s being in an atmosphere that fosters conspiracy theories while feeling pressured to justify her existence,” she told me, “and honestly that fear is fully justified.”
Either way, Yan’s views have clearly reached a prominent audience and certainly will continue to do so. On a September 15 segment on Fox Business, host Lou Dobbs and the Hudson Institute’s Michael Pillsbury — an informal adviser to Trump on China — spent time praising Yan’s work.
Trump retweeted Dobbs’s tweet of the clip.
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