A new study alleged to show that the new coronavirus was manufactured in a Chinese laboratory was released by a couple of nonprofit groups linked to Steve Bannon, the former Trump strategist who now faces charges of fraud.
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 New York Post, which hyped the “explosive” accusations that contradict 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 published on the association̵
A search of the Google Scholar and Rule of Law Society and Rule of Law Foundation websites shows that the organizations have not previously published scientific or medical research, and it is unclear whether the paper has received any peer review. It was published Monday on the website Zenodo, a publicly available repository of scientific and academic research to which anyone can upload their work.
Both nonprofit organizations behind the investigation were formed in collaboration with exiled Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui, with whom Bannon has collaborated on a series of legal efforts targeting the Chinese government and business efforts that have drawn control of federal law enforcement officials.
In addition to their work with nonprofits for the rule of law, Bannon and Guo have also collaborated on a news site, G News, which has published stories suggesting that coronavirus was manufactured by the Chinese military.
In July, Bannon appeared to tease forthcoming scientific studies that support his claim that coronavirus originated from a laboratory in Wuhan, China. He told Daily mail that researchers from the laboratory had “surrendered” to the United States and collaborated with US intelligence agencies. On the podcast “War Room: Pandemic”, Bannon has hosted others who have speculated that the virus may have been a Chinese “bioweapon”, but he has said he believes the most likely explanation is that it ” came out of experiments that were continuing ”at the Wuhan laboratory.
It is a line that has been repeated by some prominent American officials. President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have both alluded to intelligence reports supporting this theory. “This evidence is certainly cumbersome,” Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) wrote in an April column for Wall Street Journal“But it all points to the Wuhan laboratories.”
While an unintentional leak from the virology laboratory in Wuhan is still a theoretically possible source of the original outbreak in the city, the vast majority of the scientific literature on the virus has determined that its origin was natural and that it was not produced in laboratories. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Trump administration’s coronavirus point person, has repeatedly stressed that all evidence suggests the virus was not man-made.
The study published by Bannon’s group on Monday is therefore particularly burning. “This virus is not from nature,” said Dr. Li-Meng Yan, one of the researchers who conducted the study, during a Monday appearance in a British talk show. She called reports that the virus originated from a Wuhan meat market “a smokescreen” designed to obscure its true origins.
But other virologists disagree, saying the paper makes false claims about a number of basic facts. “Basically, it’s all complicated, and some of it is completely fictional,” said Dr. Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University, The Daily Beast on the study.
The newspaper claims that the coronavirus’s genes are “suspiciously similar to those from a bat coronavirus discovered by military laboratories” in China – a claim Rasmussen says should not be surprising because “they are related SARS-like coronaviruses.”
The authors of the study made a similar claim about part of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein – which viruses use to break and infect cells – and wrote that it resembles the original SARS virus in a “suspicious way” and suggests genetic manipulation . “SARS-CoV also used ACE2 as a cellular receptor, just like other SARS-like bat coronaviruses,” says Rasmussen. “It is not suspicious and is actually expected that the receptor binding domains that bind the same protein would be similar.”
Rasmussen also said the paper erroneously presented basic facts about another part of coronavirus spike proteins known as furin cleavage sites. The authors claim that the cleavage site of SARS-CoV-2 is “unique” and unseen elsewhere in nature. But according to Rasmussen, “Furrow cleavage sites occur naturally in many other beta-CoVs, including MERS-CoV and other SARS-like bat coronaviruses.”
Yan has said she fled China to avoid reprisals from the government there because of her accusations that it did not exist about the origin and nature of the virus. She said she warned officials in December that the virus was highly contagious between humans, but that her accusations were ignored.
The University of Hong Kong’s School of Public Health, where Yan was employed, has disputed her claims that the university did not follow her warnings before the outbreak in China.
In August, Yan appeared on Bannon’s podcast. During the show, Bannon said he “was still not in the camp, believing that they deliberately let it out, but I have been strong in the camp from the start of it coming out of the Wuhan P4 lab.”
Bannon is not related to his work with the Rule of Law groups facing crimes over what federal prosecutors say was an attempt to extract millions of dollars from a nonprofit seeking to fund the private construction of a wall at the southern U.S. border. Bannon has pleaded guilty to the charges.