What’s Behind The Coronavirus Lab Origin Hoax?

"One way we still win this election is by turning it into a referendum on China," one Trump campaign advisor bluntly admitted this week to the Los Angeles Times.

That's why Trump keeps calling it "the China virus." (He actually crossed out "coronavirus" in one speech and wrote in "China virus" in its place.) It's why he's created a 60-second montage of clips about China which CNN says "takes Biden remarks grossly out of context to twist their meaning." But it's also why hard-right Republicans keep pushing a discredited conspiracy theory that the virus somehow escaped from a government-run lab. (Don't blame bats, blame the Chinese!)

41-year-old senator Tom Cotton spreads untrue rumor on Fox News
41-year-old senator spreads untrue rumor on Fox News
Rush Limbaugh, Steve Bannon and even a 41-year-old Republican senator appearing on Fox & Friends all started with a smear about the coronavirus being a top secret bioengineered chemical weapon — which then escaped from the lab anyways, because the Chinese are not only diabolical military geniuses but also stupid and reckless. This yarn was a great way to scapegoat a new set of foreigners — until scientists proved that the coronavirus was not bioengineered.

But were you expecting Republicans to humbly admit they were wrong and apologize? No, they just re-packaged their lie and tried again. Okay, so the virus wasn't bioengineered — but maybe it escaped from a lab anyways. Yeah, that's the ticket. So their new theory is the Chinese aren't diabolically malicious and stupid and reckless. They're just stupid and reckless.

For this election instead of blaming Mexican rapists and drug lords, Trump will blame reckless Chinese lab workers.

Two academics studying online disinformation write in the Washington Post that Russia has been actively boosting this "fearmongering theory about the origins of the virus all over Twitter and social media. (This week the same theory turned up again in the Russia government's propaganda/pretend news site "Russia Today," which true to form cited a well-known tabloid newspaper as its source.)

So how do real scientists react when you bring them a Republican theory that the virus might've escaped from a lab? Thomas Gallagher, a virus expert and professor at Loyola University of Chicago, recently gave an emphatic rebuttal to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. Blaming the virus on Chinese lab workers "would be utterly defenseless, truly unhelpful, and extremely inappropriate."

A former NPR writer and editor also eviscerated the rumor for an article at Vox. They actually tracked down the head of one of America's own level-4 national biosafety labs, who for six years had worked with the Chinese team at the Wuhan lab. His response? "I can tell you that lab in Wuhan is equivalent to any lab here in the U.S. and Europe."

So does he really believe the virus originated in the Wuhan market instead? In a word, yes. "The linkage back to the market is pretty realistic, and consistent with what we saw with SARS. It's a perfectly plausible and logical explanation: The virus exists in nature and, jumping hosts, finds that it like humans just fine..."

CNN asked more scientists — and seems to have gotten pretty much the same answer. Vincent Racaniello, a microbiology professor at Columbia University, believes the escaped-from-a-lab theory "has no credibility." And CNN also talked to Dr. Simon Anthony, a professor at the public health grad school of Columbia University and a key member of PREDICT, a federally funded global program investigating viruses in animal hosts with pandemic potential. His response? "It all feels far-fetched... There's certainly no evidence to support that theory."

The Washington Post also asked Vipin Narang, an associate political science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with a background in chemical engineering. And Narang also derided the scenario as "highly unlikely."

"We don't have any evidence for that. It's a skip in logic..."

Hell, even the 41-year-old Republican senator pushing this theory "acknowledged there is no evidence that the disease originated at the lab," the Post reports.

"Instead, he suggested it's necessary to ask Chinese authorities about the possibility, fanning the embers of a conspiracy theory that has been repeatedly debunked by experts."

But to be fair to the senator, a senior writer at Snopes.com writer blames the confusion on "a pretend journal" that first pushed out this theory. Gullible people online apparently mistook a URL with "research" in its name for an actual scientific journal, he explains on Snopes.com. "A February 2020 document erroneously described by several media outlets as a 'scientific study' provides the supposedly science-based evidence of a virus escaping from a lab. This paper, such as it is, merely highlights the close distance between the seafood market and the labs and falsely claimed to have identified instances in which viral agents had escaped from Wuhan biological laboratories in the past...

"[T]his paper — which was first posted on and later deleted from the academic social networking website ResearchGate — adds nothing but misinformation to the debate regarding the origins of the novel coronavirus and is not a real scientific study."

But he was more blunt on Twitter when the same far-right conspiracies theories made another appearance in a misguided opinion piece in the Washington Post. "Holy fuck...! This article repeats several aggressive falsehoods!" But this has nothing to do with facts. When a conspiracy theory won't die, it's because the far right fanatics, Russian trolls, Rush Limbaugh fans and the generally misinformed are determined to keep it alive. Remember, "One way we still win this election is by turning it into a referendum on China," a Trump campaign advisor told the Los Angeles Times this week.

If this conspiracy keeps coming back, it's because political operatives want it to.