Weird science: How a 'shoddy' Bannon-backed paper on coronavirus origins made its way to an audience of millions
Posted October 21, 2020 5:46 p.m. EDT
CNN — It was a blockbuster story. A respected Chinese virologist appeared on Tucker Carlson's show on Fox News in mid-September to share the results of her just-completed report. The conclusion: The novel coronavirus that causes Covid-19 was likely engineered in a Chinese lab. On Carlson's show, she claimed it was intentionally released into the world.
Then, its validity began to unravel. The publication of the paper by lead author Li-Meng Yan -- an ex-patriot from China seeking asylum in the US -- was quickly linked to former White House adviser Steve Bannon, long a strident critic of China's government. The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security -- a leading authority on the pandemic -- criticized the science behind the report, and pointed out that Yan and her co-authors "cite multiple papers in their reference section that have weaknesses or flaws."
A CNN review of Yan's research found it was also built on what appears to be the same theories, similar passages and identical charts presented by an anonymous blogger whose writings were posted on a website linked to Bannon months earlier. Additionally, a source told CNN the three co-authors of Yan's paper used pseudonyms instead of their real names, a practice frowned upon in scientific and academic work.
Yet, even after Facebook slapped a "false information" flag on Carlson's September 15 interview with Yan and Twitter suspended Yan's account, Carlson, Bannon and Yan have pressed forward.
"You'd think that our media would want to get to the bottom of this pandemic," Carlson said on his October 6 show, "but instead they ignored her claims."
Yan -- who is back on Twitter -- published a second report on October 8 titled "SARS-CoV-2 is an Unrestricted Bioweapon," which doubled down on the theory that the virus sweeping the globe was manmade and added that its "unleashing" was intentional. That study also included material seemingly copied from the anonymous blogger.
Both of Yan's controversial papers link to Bannon.
Prominently featured on both -- just beneath the title and authors, in a manner that resembles how university affiliations and funding sources are often listed -- are the Rule of Law Society and the Rule of Law Foundation.
The twin non-profit ventures were announced in November 2018 by Bannon and billionaire Guo Wengui, aka Miles Guo, a Chinese exile and fierce critic of the current regime in China. Bannon was arrested on Guo's yacht this summer for the unrelated allegation that he defrauded donors who contributed to his crowdfunding campaign to support President Donald Trump's border wall.
The two men have repeatedly advanced the theory that the coronavirus came out of a Chinese bioweapons program -- a claim that has been widely panned as groundless -- using as their primary platforms a podcast hosted by Bannon and a website called G News, which publishes their content. Their names are prominently displayed in the top banner of the site's home page.
This month, while praising Yan's work on Bannon's podcast, Bannon and Guo went as far as to suggest that China deliberately infected President Trump with the coronavirus.
That podcast -- called "War Room: Pandemic" -- was recorded the day after Trump was hospitalized for Covid-19.
Bannon credited Guo for saying from the beginning that the virus not only purposefully emerged from the labs, but that "a target is Donald J. Trump."
Bannon asked Guo: "Do you believe that a super-spreader or somebody, was actually sent and somehow has been focused on the White House or focused on President --"
"100 percent," Guo said.
Bannon himself appeared on Carlson's show on September 17 -- two days after Carlson's interview with Yan -- where he touted Yan's "amazing paper" and blasted social-media outlets for slowing its spread without revealing his own connection to the study.
Carlson included a disclaimer in a later interview with Yan on October 6, saying, "we are not endorsing your findings." But a Fox News spokesperson declined to address CNN's question of why Carlson hasn't disclosed Bannon's involvement with Yan's paper when discussing her research on several shows.
Bannon did not respond to CNN's request for comment; Yan declined a request to be interviewed and did not answer repeated requests for responses to specific questions.
Flawed citations, copied passages, mysterious co-authors
It was precisely the megaphone provided by Carlson and Bannon online and on TV that prompted the researchers at Johns Hopkins to issue a rebuttal, according to two of the Johns Hopkins authors, who spoke with CNN.
"It was clear on social media that the paper was getting more and more attention," said Nancy D. Connell, a microbial geneticist and a senior scholar at Johns Hopkins. "We talked carefully and thought for a long time whether to do it."
"On the one hand we don't want to give credence to just so much garbage," added Gigi Kwik Gronvall, an immunologist who is also a senior scholar at the institution. "On the other hand, because it's getting taken seriously, it's important to point out that this is not science ... It's infuriating, because everybody has better things to do."
The Johns Hopkins response to Yan's paper takes issue with the science, launching into a point-by-point rebuttal. It also includes a section pointing out "weaknesses or flaws" in the paper's citations.
One footnote, for instance, leads to an essay by an entrepreneur that only appears on his LinkedIn page after it was rejected by a scientific journal. Billy Zhang, a sole-proprietor consultant in Massachusetts who works with investors and governments in China, told CNN he was surprised to learn that his critique was cited in Yan's report. LinkedIn initially removed his post, but later decided to reinstate it.
Another footnote is attributed to an article authored by a writer and editor for an anti-genetically modified food website. Another still traces to an author CNN could not locate, who says he runs a company that appears not to exist. The paper of that author, Dean Bengston, links to a page listing him as the CEO of a Las Vegas company called Meandering Path. But a search of the business name on the Nevada Secretary of State website -- as well as registries for surrounding states and other business databases -- turned up no matching results.
Equally troubling for a scholarly paper was CNN's discovery that Yan's papers bear a strong resemblance to blogs first published on G News. Yan's papers contain paragraph after paragraph of identical theories and similar phrasing to the blogs, with some lines lifted nearly word for word.
What's more, Yan's three co-authors in both papers -- Shu Kang, Jie Guan and Shanchang Hu -- are pseudonyms, a source told CNN. It's a practice that is highly unusual in such research and generally discouraged due to the resulting lack of accountability and transparency, experts told CNN. The source didn't know why the use of pseudonyms wasn't disclosed in the papers.
"They are all Chinese but based here in the US," the source said. "They did not want their real names out there for fear of their families back in China."
Dr. Daniel Lucey, an infectious-disease epidemics expert at Georgetown University, said he can't think of another case of authors using pseudonyms in a scientific paper.
"If you used a fake name, then it would start calling into question, under normal circumstances -- if they weren't honest about their name, then what else are they not honest about?" he said.
But Lucey said the authors' concerns in this case might have merit.
"I would also think that the four coauthors would be worried about themselves in terms of ever going back to the mainland or Hong Kong," he said. "It's a real thing."
As part of its review, CNN spoke with a half-dozen experts from multiple institutions, and all of them found Yan's methodology to be flawed. They described her report as "junk science," "leaps of logic" and "window dressing."
Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University, said she believes Yan's report set out to deceive for the purpose of spreading "political propaganda."
"This paper is very deceptive to somebody without a scientific background, because it's written in very technical language, using a lot of jargon that makes it sound as though it is a legitimate scientific paper," she told CNN. "But anybody with an actual background in virology or molecular biology who reads this paper will realize that much of it is actually nonsense."
Anna Mapp, an associate dean and research professor at the University of Michigan, agreed. "I was really disturbed to see such a shoddy piece of work that I would not accept if turned in to me by one of my own students receiving such attention and being treated as a valid scientific paper," she told CNN. (It was Mapp's graduate student, Amanda Peiffer -- who's working toward a PhD in chemical biology -- who first alerted CNN to issues with the citations at the end of Yan's paper.)
Lucey of Georgetown told CNN that he met with Yan in person to discuss her paper on September 6 -- eight days before it was published.
His criticism was more muted than that of the other scientists who spoke with CNN; Lucey said he found some of what Yan had to say noteworthy. Ultimately, though, he said he disagrees with Yan's conclusion and told her he couldn't vouch for her science because he's not a molecular virologist.
Lucey said at one point, after much back and forth, he asked Yan a big-picture question: Why would China release a government-engineered virus in Wuhan? Lucey said Yan couldn't provide an answer that he considered plausible.
Lucey said he believes the virus originated in nature. But he disagrees with the much-publicized theory that it jumped from an animal to a human at a seafood market in December.
"Based on what I know about how epidemics have started, I think that it was at least several months earlier," he said. "It could have been out there for more than a year (before December). It's possible."
To be sure, there is no scientific consensus on where the novel coronavirus -- SARS-CoV-2 -- originated. Most of the scientific community -- including Anthony Fauci, the United States' top infectious disease expert -- believes it was not manmade. Other credible scientists floated the possibility the virus may have leaked from a Wuhan lab, although some contend that an article in Nature Medicine has debunked the notion.
Yan's first paper claims to refute that widely cited Nature Medicine article, published in mid-March, which concluded that SARS-CoV-2 most likely came from nature and not "purposeful manipulation."
Neither of Yan's papers are peer-reviewed, which by itself is not a disqualifier. Researchers often publish early drafts of their work on what are known as scientific preprint servers to quickly share findings that could benefit the public -- a practice that has accelerated in the urgent age of the coronavirus.
Yan says she's in hiding
Many experts who read Yan's research said they found it hard to reconcile the work with her seemingly impressive pedigree, which includes a stint at the University of Hong Kong's public health laboratory -- a World Health Organization collaborating facility. She has been published in Nature and The Lancet -- two prestigious academic journals -- and says she was among the first researchers in the world to become privy to the dangers of SARS-CoV-2.
"Dr. Yan's history and training is excellent," Rasmussen said. "I'd really like to hear from her why she decided to do this, because effectively, it has ruined her credibility as a virologist and it would be a career ending mistake to make."
Yan says she fled to the United States in April, according to a Fox News story. In that July piece, she went public with an allegation: Yan claimed that the Chinese government and the WHO had kept mum about their knowledge of the person-to-person transmission of the virus for weeks, even after Yan herself had said she raised the issue with her superiors in late December or early January.
"The reason I came to the US is because I deliver the message of the truth of COVID," Yan, saying she feared for her life, told the network from an undisclosed location in the US.
The Chinese government, WHO and the University of Hong Kong have vehemently denied her July accusation of a coverup.
In her October 6 interview with Carlson, Yan said her mother was arrested by Chinese authorities for making allegations against China on her prior appearances on Fox News. The Chinese government didn't respond to a detailed list of questions from CNN about this and other allegations by Yan.
It's unclear where Yan is staying in the US -- and the extent to which she knows Bannon and Guo.
But a photo that circulated on Twitter last month and was posted on G News appeared to capture the reflection of a smiling Yan in the mirror behind the two men in the foreground: Wang DingGang, board chair of the Rule of Law Society, and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Bannon's image can also be seen in the photo.
Although Bannon and Guo's Rule of Law Society and Rule of Law Foundation are listed under the titles of Yan's reports, neither paper mentions Bannon or Guo, or elaborates on the role the organizations have played in their creation.
Guo responded to CNN's questions about the link with a statement that said Yan's publications were researched and written independently.
"I have repeatedly stated since as early as January of this year that the COVID-19 pandemic was created by the Chinese Communist Party with the worst of intentions. I stand by these statements," Guo said. "I proudly support Dr. Yan in her efforts to stand up against the CCP mafia and tell the world the truth about COVID-19. Dr. Yan is a hero for her whistleblowing against the CCP and should be commended for her work and personal sacrifice."
Bannon has played up the nonprofits' early and persistent promotion of the lab-origin story.
"I want to thank Miles Guo because it was Miles Guo and the whistleblower movement, Miles Guo and the Rule of Law Society, the Rule of Law Foundation, that back in early January really got us to start to focus on this," Bannon said on his podcast on October 3.
The two also discussed Yan in that episode, with Guo suggesting she could help prove that the virus was made in a lab. But they made no mention of their connection to her report.
Yan herself has appeared several times on Bannon's podcast. In August, she said the communist regime does "evil things" and discussed its history of persecuting its own people.
The Rule of Law Foundation and Rule of Law Society responded to questions from CNN with two identical statements, signed by their respective board chairs, Hao Haidong and Wang DingGang.
Each statement expresses support for Dr. Yan "and any other Chinese asylee who seeks to tell the world the truth about the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) corruption, atrocious human rights record, and its role in the spread of COVID-19.
"Dr. Yan has independently researched COVID-19 and we respect her findings and desire to speak the truth about COVID-19 to the public," the statement says.
"Our support of Dr. Yan has never included influencing, altering, or editing her scientific research and findings."
The statement said her reference to the organizations in the report "was solely done as an appreciation of our support in helping her flee Hong Kong and avoid arrest for her COVID-19 whistleblowing."
Rasmussen of Columbia University says the possibility of an accidental lab release or even of an engineered virus can't be ruled out, but said either scenario is extremely unlikely -- and Yan's reports provide no credible evidence.
The "extraordinary claim," she said, shouldn't be made without "extraordinary evidence."
"As much as I hate to think of the idea of competent scientists using their work for political propaganda, to me, that's what this seems to be," she said. "And certainly the affiliation with Steve Bannon and Miles Guo and the Society for the Rule of Law does nothing to dispel that suspicion."