Editors' note: This story has been updated to more clearly attribute phrasing from work previously published in CBC.
A popular pro-Trump website has released the personal information of a scientist from Wuhan, China, falsely accusing them of creating the coronavirus as a bioweapon, in a plot it said is the real-life version of the video game Resident Evil.
On Wednesday, far-right news site Zero Hedge claimed without evidence that a scientist at the Wuhan Institute of Virology created the strain of the virus that has led the World Health Organization to declare a global health emergency. The outbreak has grown to more than 9,776 cases, with 118 outside of China. The coronavirus has killed 213 people, all in China.
It concludes, “if anyone wants to find out what really caused the coronavirus pandemic that has infected thousands of people in China and around the globe, they should probably pay [the Chinese scientist] a visit.” It also lists their email address and a phone number.
BuzzFeed News has reached out to the scientist, whom it is declining to name.
Zero Hedge's Twitter account was suspended Friday, following the publication of the scientist's name.
"The account was permanently suspended for violating our platform manipulation policy," a spokesperson for Twitter told BuzzFeed News.
The rumors and lies about the Wuhan Institute of Virology dovetail with a popular meme about how the institute’s logo is similar to that of the Umbrella Corporation, the shady agency responsible for making the virus that starts the zombie apocalypse in the Resident Evil video game franchise. The logo that inspired the meme isn’t actually from Wuhan Institute of Virology, but actually belongs to Shanghai Ruilan Bao Hu San Biotech Limited, located in Shanghai, 500 miles away.
Zero Hedge, which describes itself as a financial blog, has more than 50,000 followers on Facebook and more than 670,000 followers on Twitter and is run by Daniel Ivandjiiski, a Bulgarian-born, US-based, former investment banker, who writes the majority of the posts published by the pseudonym Tyler Durden. The site regularly amplifies conspiracy theories from anonymous message board 4chan and writes frequently about the deep state, doomsday prep, bitcoin speculation, and New Age pseudoscience.
Zero Hedge’s Wednesday coronavirus story — “Is This the Man Behind the Global Coronavirus Pandemic?” — focused on the Chinese scientist who researches the coronavirus.
Zero Hedge linked to a Wuhan Institute of Virology press release from January 2019 that says the scientist was studying why bats who carry the coronavirus don’t get sick from it. What the Zero Hedge article does not state is that studying a form of a virus strain found in animals is a standard way to make vaccines, whether for the flu or polio.
The logo that inspired the meme isn’t actually from Wuhan Institute of Virology, but actually belongs to Shanghai Ruilan Bao Hu San Biotech Limited.
Brandon J. Brown, an associate professor at the University of California, Riverside, and a member of the Infectious Diseases Society of America, the International Society of Vaccines, and the Global Health Council, told BuzzFeed News it makes sense that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was researching the coronavirus in bats.
“One reason why this institute would be doing immune research would be to prevent what we are seeing right now with the novel coronavirus outbreak,” Brown said. “They have studied other coronaviruses at that site including SARS, where they discovered that it originated in bats.”
Brown also said that the entire idea of the coronavirus working as a bioweapon is pretty silly. “The fatality rate [of the coronavirus] is 200/10,000, which is currently lower compared to many other viruses including SARS, so if it was meant as a bioweapon, it is not a good one,” Brown said. “So let's debunk the bioweapon idea that we are seeing in the news.”
As the virus has spread, so too has misinformation about it. The new focus on the scientist is the culmination of several conspiracy theories that have gained traction since the beginning of the outbreak early in January. One version of the hoax began in Facebook Groups run by supporters of the pro-Trump QAnon movement and the anti-vax community, where users claimed the outbreak was a population control plot by former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates.
Another version claimed that the virus was smuggled out of Canada to the Wuhan Institute of Virology by two Chinese spies posing as scientists. This narrative is muddled, but it seems to be based on a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation story from July about a possible "policy breach" at the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg that resulted in Dr. Xiangguo Qiu, a researcher who regularly collaborates with Chinese scientific institutes, her husband, Keding Cheng, and as CBC reported "an unknown number of her students from China were removed" from Canada's only lab that is a biosafety level 4, the maximum containment level for dangerous pathogens.
On Jan. 25, hedge fund manager Kyle Bass tweeted this version of the hoax. His tweet was retweeted over 12,000 times and has gone viral as a screenshot on Facebook. Factcheck.org, one of the platform’s official independent fact-checking organizations, debunked it, and on Facebook, screenshots of Bass’s tweet now appear with a “false information" disclaimer. Eric Morrissette, a spokesperson for the Public Health Agency of Canada, told Factcheck.org, “this is misinformation and there is no factual basis for claims being made on social media.”
The theory about Chinese spies smuggling the coronavirus out of Canada is also being promoted by what appears to be inauthentic behavior on Twitter.
Zero Hedge has been aggressive in its promotion of misinformation about the coronavirus. Earlier this week, it published a massive article in collaboration with the Indian conspiracy theory site Great Game India titled, “Did China Steal Coronavirus From Canada and Weaponize It?”
Dr. Erica Bickerton, who studies avian pathology for the Pirbright Institute, which was falsely implicated in the Bill Gates coronavirus conspiracy theory, told BuzzFeed News last week that the coronavirus is a whole family of viruses. “Each of these viruses has their own characteristics,” she said.
“The fatality rate...is currently lower compared to many other viruses including SARS, so if it was meant as a bioweapon, it is not a good one.”
The Zero Hedge article has been posted on Twitter over 10,000 times and shared close 2,000 times on Facebook in the last 24 hours. Bass also tweeted the story out to his 120,000 followers, using the hashtag #biowarfare.
“As we are now right before the dawn of the new Golden Age, a strong purification must occur before we as a planet can enter the Light,” wrote one user, sharing the article to a Facebook Group with 13,000 members called Arcturian/Pleiadian Starseed Community. “This purification is called the end time madness.”
The rumors and lies are also being spread across 4chan. A user linked to the Zero Hedge article in a 4chan thread titled, “All hail [the scientist], creator of Corona-Chan.” In another 4chan thread, users claimed the scientist had created a mutant superbug.
The hoaxes surrounding the coronavirus have become so prevalent that “uncensored" subreddits about the outbreak are being created for users on Reddit who want to share the theories. The Zero Hedge article was shared to one subreddit called r/Wuhan_Flu. As of Friday, the subreddit was quarantined by Reddit and warns users that it may contain misinformation.
“If true it explains why our ‘authorities’ are doing sweet fuckall almost to the point of facilitating the spread,” the top comment reads. “The kind of deep nefarious [New World Order] shit that'd melt the tinfoil hat right on our heads.”