A Chinese virologist claimed the coronavirus was 'intentionally' released. Turns out, she works for a group led by Steve Bannon.
  • 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 Fox News host Tucker Carlson it's a "man-made virus" that the Chinese government released "intentionally."
  • Yan and her co-authors work for groups co-founded by former Trump strategist Steve Bannon, which he directed prior to his August arrest.
  • Some members of the Trump administration have pushed a fringe theory that the virus accidentally leaked from a Wuhan lab, but there's no evidence of this.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

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 papers 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 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 co-authors' work shows they're affiliated with a pair of non-profits based in New York City — the Rule of Law Society and the Rule of Law Foundation — that were both led by ex-Trump strategist Steve Bannon prior to his arrest.

Neither organization has any history of publishing scientific or medical research, and the new paper has not been peer-reviewed by other scientists.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 shares 96% of its genetic code with coronaviruses circulating in Chinese bat populations.

Yan's group, however, suggested people made the virus using existing bat coronaviruses as "a backbone and/or template."

Bannon co-founded both groups with an exiled Chinese billionaire

Bannon was arrested in August on charges of defrauding donors who gave money to the "We Build The Wall" campaign. In January 2019, helped co-found both Rule of Law groups with exiled Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui.

Guo also founded the site G News, which has published multiple stories claiming the coronavirus virus originated in a Chinese lab and was purposefully spread by the military. Those articles were later debunked.

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 being accused by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) of bribery and fraud. He previously worked with Bannon to make allegations of corruption against CCP officials.

Yan, meanwhile, was formerly a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Hong Kong. She 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 said she began to worry for her safety after suggesting the CCP and World Health Organization knew about the virus' community spread before December.

"I know how they treat whistleblowers," she told Fox News.

In her interview with Carlson on Tuesday, Yan said she has evidence that shows how China engineered the virus, adding, "I am the target that Chinese Communist Party wants disappeared."

The University of Hong Kong said in a July press release that Yan "never conducted any research on human-to human transmission" of the coronavirus before she left, and said her view has "no scientific basis but resembles hearsay."

'Poppycock dressed up as science'

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 isn't a hodgepodge of existing coronaviruses, as Yan and other supporters of the theory suggest.

The researchers wrote that their work indicates it's "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 March study said Yan's group had "cherry picked" only data in support of their conclusion.

"Poppycock dressed up as 'science,'" that scientist, Kristian Anderson, wrote in a tweet.

 

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 a range of 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 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 the coronavirus was of animal origins, but that a sample of it was stored at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and accidentally leaked.

Researchers at that institute do study infectious diseases, including coronaviruses, which led it to come under 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," US epidemiologist Joanna Mazet, who has worked with and trained researchers at the Wuhan institute, previously told Business Insider.

Mazet said she helped staff there develop and implement "very stringent safety protocols."

What's more, Shi Zhengli, a virologist at the institute, said none of the coronavirus samples that had been stored there match the new coronavirus' genome.

"That really took a load off my mind," Shi told Scientific American in April, adding, "I had not slept a wink for days."

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