A provocative and unproven theory is gaining traction on Fox News and in other right-wing media: The novel coronavirus originated inside of a Chinese lab.
Some version of the theory is appealing to President Donald Trump and his supporters, because it gives them an easy scapegoat to blame for the pandemic. And more outlandish versions of it circulate in certain corners of the internet, with some suggesting the novel coronavirus was intentionally released as a bioweapon. That claim has been swiftly knocked down by scientists.
But this particular internet rabbit hole is difficult to hop out of, because the idea that the virus may have originated in a lab is less far-fetched and there are too many unknowns to eliminate this possibility. While scientists are not yet ready to rule it out, disinformation researchers are clear about why the claim has spread so far, so fast: Donald Trump.
Five days ago, Fox News published a story claiming COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, "likely" originated in the Wuhan Institute of Virology. It described the report as based on multiple sources who had been briefed on the details of early actions by China's government.
"The sources believe the initial transmission of the virus — a naturally occurring strain that was being studied there — was bat-to-human and that ‘patient zero’ worked at the laboratory, then went into the population in Wuhan," wrote Fox News, which claimed the next day that members of the US intelligence community were investigating whether the novel coronavirus had escaped from the Wuhan lab.
The Fox News report came one day after Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin published excerpts from two-year-old State Department communications in which US diplomats described what they saw as safety issues at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
"Two years before the novel coronavirus pandemic upended the world, U.S. Embassy officials visited a Chinese research facility in the city of Wuhan several times and sent two official warnings back to Washington about inadequate safety at the lab, which was conducting risky studies on coronaviruses from bats," he wrote.
Rogin reported that the rediscovery of the two-year old communications had fueled discussions among national security officials in the Trump administration about whether the Wuhan lab might have been the source of COVID-19 — “even though conclusive proof has yet to emerge.”
In the days that followed, the Fox News report and Rogin’s column have reignited a long-standing suspicion — particularly on the US right — that the Chinese lab could be the origin of the pandemic, rather than the Wuhan wet market. And while there may well have been discussions about that possibility within the US intelligence community, scientists have suggested that while they can't yet rule out a transmission at the lab, an artificial creation of the virus appears next to impossible.
"There is strong evidence that the #SARSCoV2 #coronavirus is NOT an engineered bioweapon. That said, it's important to be upfront that we do not have sufficient evidence to exclude entirely the possibility that it escaped from a research lab..."
In fact, there's a great deal that scientists still don't know about the origins of the novel coronavirus. In January, a group of scientists wrote in the medical journal Lancet that not all of the initial cases of COVID-19 may have been spread from the market in Wuhan. That does not mean that experts believe the virus is an escaped bioweapon: “All available evidence suggests the virus has an animal origin and is not [a] manipulated or constructed virus in a lab or somewhere else,” WHO spokesperson Fadela Chaib said on Tuesday, echoing the results of a study published in March. It does mean that key questions about its origin have yet to be determined — and may never be. For instance, the exact origins of the Ebola virus have not yet been determined, despite the first human case being detected in 1976.
The origin of the novel coronavirus is a legitimate area of scientific inquiry, in which there are still open questions. As Carl T. Bergstrom, a professor of biology at the University of Washington, tweeted last week, "There is strong evidence that the #SARSCoV2 #coronavirus is NOT an engineered bioweapon. That said, it's important to be upfront that we do not have sufficient evidence to exclude entirely the possibility that it escaped from a research lab..."
But other scientists were quick to distinguish their work from the currently unsupported claims circulating on Fox News and in the Washington Post.
"It's irresponsible for political reporters like Rogin [to] uncritically regurgitate a secret ‘cable’ without asking a single virologist or ecologist or making any attempt to understand the scientific context," tweeted Columbia University virologist Angela Rasmussen. (Rogin defended his work, writing to her that he did speak to several scientists, including virologists, but their quotes didn’t make it into his story.)
Regardless of the science, it's in the political interest of the president and his most fervent supporters to raise the possibility of a Chinese lab origin.
Vincent Racaniello, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Columbia University and host of the podcast This Week in Virology, told BuzzFeed News that he wasn’t even comfortable calling the idea that the lab was the source of the outbreak a theory. “A theory is based on results,” he said. “I think it's driven by politics, frankly.”
“There was no way this could escape a lab,” Racaniello added. “If this escaped a Wuhan lab, [the researchers] would have all gotten sick.”
Racaniello explained that the lab studies some of the world’s deadliest pathogens, with a particular focus on novel coronaviruses found in bats, and that in January its scientists were the first to genetically sequence COVID-19.
“They isolated it from a patient and found it to be very similar” to RaTG13, a virus the lab discovered in 2013 in bats in China’s Yunnan province, he said. “You can see there is a common ancestor of both viruses.”
Racaniello said the two claims — that the virus could be human-made and that it could have escaped from a laboratory — had no scientific backing. “People who are saying it escaped from a lab have no idea what they're talking about,” he said, adding, “No human could ever design this virus.”
The first public speculation that the lab, whose principal investigator is Shi Zhengli, dubbed “Bat Woman” by Chinese media, could be responsible for the outbreak came in a February research paper in which Chinese scientists pointed out that the virology institute is close to a Wuhan seafood market where the virus is commonly believed to have first come into contact with humans. The authors withdrew their paper as “speculation” after it received international notice. Yuan Zhiming, a senior official at the Wuhan facility, told Chinese state television earlier this month “there’s no way this virus came from us.”
QAnon YouTuber Jordan Sather warned his followers in January that the coronavirus was a “new fad disease” that had been “planned.” Sather’s conspiracy theory hinged on a 2015 patent for a coronavirus vaccine filed by scientists at the Pirbright Institute in Surrey, England, a research institute that studies a weakened form of a different coronavirus that could be used as a respiratory disease vaccine for birds and other animals — not humans.
Ten days later, far-right finance news site Zero Hedge claimed without evidence that a scientist at the Wuhan Institute of Virology had created the novel coronavirus. “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,” the article concluded, adding the scientist’s phone number and email address.
Following the publication of the scientist's name in a tweet, Twitter suspended Zero Hedge's account permanently for violation of its terms of service, which forbid coordinated harassment and sharing third-party personal information. Zero Hedge also speculated that Chinese agents smuggled the coronavirus out of a laboratory in Canada and turned it into a weapon.
Like a fugue, the American right has been playing variations on this theme in the months since then. In February, radio host Rush Limbaugh claimed the deep state had created the coronavirus as a political weapon to “to bring down Trump.” Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton, while speaking on Fox News a week later, claimed the virus could be a lab-made bioweapon. (Cotton later clarified on Twitter that he actually thought there were four possible origins for the coronavirus — including an accidental breach or deliberate release of the virus.)
The idea has become so popular that Chinese state propaganda organs are now trolling American conservatives by promoting their own conspiracy theories. In early March, Lijian Zhao, a prominent Chinese diplomat, tweeted a conspiracy theory that the novel coronavirus did not originate in Wuhan, but in the United States.
According to Wilson Center disinformation researcher Nina Jankowicz, the claim that the Wuhan Institute of Virology could have been the origin of the novel coronavirus left the fringe and entered the American conservative mainstream in early April.
“It seems to me to be emanating from that Epoch Times documentary,” she said.
On April 7, the Epoch Times, an aggressively pro-Trump news outlet, released a 54-minute video titled “1st Documentary Movie on the Origin of CCP Virus, Tracking Down the Origin of the Wuhan Coronavirus.” The Epoch Times is linked to Falun Gong, a religious movement persecuted by the Chinese Communist Party. The documentary has been viewed 1.6 million times on YouTube and shared over 50,000 times on Facebook, which has flagged the video as “partly false" for promoting “the unsupported hypothesis that SARS-CoV-2 is a bioengineered virus released from a Wuhan research laboratory.”
“All these campaigns are preying on people's desires to know more about the situation,” Jankowicz said. “It bothers people that we can't pinpoint where this virus came from.”
But Jankowicz did pinpoint who benefited, saying that putting the blame on a Wuhan lab helps the Trump administration find a scapegoat.
“It becomes more politically convenient for Trump and his administration the further we get into this maelstrom, especially in comparison to the Chinese response,” she said.
"It becomes more politically convenient for Trump and his administration the further we get into this maelstrom, especially in comparison to the Chinese response."
Following last week’s reports in the Washington Post and Fox News, the right-wing media machine has sounded the theme loudly. One of the top referrals for the Fox piece, according to social metrics site CrowdTangle, was Sen. Cotton’s Facebook page, which shared the as-of-yet-unproven article with the caption “China did this. China should be treated like the pariah state it is.” In the following days, the hyperpartisan Washington Examiner published a story headlined “Tom Cotton Was Right: Coronavirus May Have Come From a Chinese Lab," and the American Conservative published a piece describing the Epoch Times video as “impressive in its scope, scale, and overall depth.”
Jeremy Konyndyk, a senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development, has been outspoken on Twitter about how the Trump administration has groped to find a direct link between the coronavirus and Chinese labs. Konyndyk is also critical of the Washington Post’s Rogin for publishing excerpts of a two-year-old cable, rather than the cable in its entirety.
"They're looking really hard at the intel and they haven't found anything yet,” he said.
Konyndyk said there is currently no evidence that the coronavirus originated in a lab — either as a deliberate creation or an accidental release.
“There was a very early cluster [of cases] in the [Wuhan seafood] market,” he said, citing the assessment of virologist Trevor Bedford. “If the lab was the point of spillover, you wouldn't necessarily see the early clustering in the market.”
There's good reason to be suspicious about what China is and isn't reporting. The CCP heavily censored early information about the outbreak and was reticent to share data internationally in the months that followed. But the country's motivations are less clear.
“Should [we] read that as a desire to cover up or a fear that anything that is discovered won't be handled in good faith?” asked Konyndyk. “I think the Chinese should be open to a more open process.”
As the virus has spread, so has mistrust on both sides of the Pacific Ocean.
Susan Shirk, a professor and chair of UC San Diego’s 21st Century China Center, told BuzzFeed News that China’s initial response has left both people in China and around the world distrustful of what its government has said. “And it leads to all sorts of rumors and conspiracy theories,” she said.
“At the beginning, they really mishandled the situation, both at the local level in Wuhan and at the national level. They really didn't tell the public very frankly what was going on until it was much too late,” she said.
"They’re just trying to protect their own political skin by blaming and stoking ill will to the other country."
Since then, the country’s government and people have grown to resent the lack of compassion the rest of the world has shown China, Shirk said, while Chinese citizens have become more nationalistic, proud that they were able to flatten the curve on their own.
“Now that they've gotten control over the first wave, they're prematurely celebrating out of defensiveness and claiming a lot of credit,” she said.
It’s not just Trump who has a political interest in scapegoating another country. Leaders of both nations are trying to find ways to reframe their failures to contain the outbreak.
“Xi Jinping and Donald Trump are both vulnerable to a lot of public criticism for having failed in their responses to the disease,” she said. “They’re just trying to protect their own political skin by blaming and stoking ill will to the other country.”
Shirk said that if the US and China can’t repair their relationship, the second and third waves of the coronavirus outbreak could be even more dangerous than the first.
“What really gets me, even in the middle of the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the United States jointly led the global effort and totally eradicated smallpox,” she said. “Could you imagine the United States and China doing that?”