Reprinted with permission from MediaMatters
Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon has pushed a debunked theory about the origins of the coronavirus in Wuhan, China on his daily radio broadcast War Room: Pandemic. The claim echoes fake news pushed by G News, a website that has reportedly paid him at least $1 million for consulting and offered him a position as senior editor.
War Room: Pandemic launched on January 25 as a spin-off to War Room: Impeachment, Bannon’s rapid response operation defending President Donald Trump during his Senate impeachment trial. Since the new show began, Bannon has repeatedly pushed the false narrative that the coronavirus was leaked from a covert biological weapons program at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which includes a secure research facility where scientists study highly contagious and infectious diseases.
The unfounded narrative that the coronavirus was engineered and leaked from the lab has been wholly rejected by experts, with The Washington Post labeling it a “fringe theory,” PolitiFact calling the claim made in the G News article “false,” and Foreign Policy describing it as “an outbreak of nonsense.” Rutgers University professor of chemical biology Richard Ebright told the Post that “based on the virus genome and properties there is no indication whatsoever that it was an engineered virus.”
But evidence is no object when Bannon is on a mission to propagandize. On the podcast, Bannon has repeatedly cited stories by Bill Gertz in the Washington Times that suggest, based on speculations from a single source, that the Wuhan Institute of Virology is researching biowarfare, and that the coronavirus was engineered and leaked from there. Bannon kicked off the show’s inaugural episode by interviewing Gertz to promote his flimsy reporting.
BuzzFeed recently reported on Bannon’s ties to G News, a digital media outlet launched by Chinese billionaire-in-exile Guo Wengui that has also published two false stories about how the coronavirus was first introduced to residents of Wuhan. One G News story falsely alleged that the Chinese government would imminently confess that the virus was genetically engineered and leaked from a lab near the densely populated city. The other included a document purporting to validate a conspiracy theory that the Chinese military spread the disease on purpose.
Bannon’s contracts with the project were first reported in October by Axios, which showed that he had signed on to serve as a consultant for one year starting in August 2018 and was to be compensated at least $1 million. Axios also reported on a second, unsigned contract that specified Bannon would serve as a senior editor for G News starting in August 2019. According to BuzzFeed, “Guo and Bannon frequently appear together in videos on G News that attack the Chinese government.” (According to The New York Times, Guo described his connection to Bannon in a 2018 interview: “We both naturally despise the Chinese Communist Party. That’s why we’ve become partners.”) Episodes of War Room: Pandemic are also cross-posted to the G News website.
From the January 25, 2020, edition of War Room: Pandemic
STEVE BANNON (HOST): Bill Gertz from the Washington Times, Bill Gertz had an amazing piece in the Washington Times about the biological labs that happen to be in Wuhan.
The episode also featured J. Kyle Bass, a China critic and hedge fund investor with connections to G News owner Guo, on the same day that Bass tweeted out a CBC article from July 2019, falsely claiming that “a husband and wife Chinese spy team” smuggled viral samples out of a Candian research facility to Wuhan. “Pizzagate” conspiracy theorist Jack Posobiec, who tweeted the CBC link that day with the same unsubstantiated claim, was also a guest on the episode.
Later in the show, Gertz and Bannon delved further into the thinly sourced theory. Despite admitting that “we have no evidence that this current coronavirus leaked from that institute,” Gertz speculated that “it’s certainly possible that this outbreak of this animal virus could have come from one of their biological weapons labs.” The U.S. Department of State has raised concerns regarding China’s compliance with the Biological Weapons Convention, but has not affirmatively identified the existence of such a program.
From the January 25, 2020, edition of War Room: Pandemic
STEVE BANNON (HOST): Bill, can you briefly summarize the article that you did yesterday? Talk about these biological labs that are in Wuhan and what aspect do you think they may have in this crisis?
BILL GERTZ: Sure, yeah, good to be on the show, Steve. This is a significant development in the sense that what I’ve identified is the sole declared facility in China capable of handling deadly viruses. In other words, this is the place where they do all of their civilian research. And I spoke with a former Israeli military intelligence officer who studied the Chinese biological warfare program and he says that this institute is clearly linked to this covert Chinese biological warfare program. Now, we have no evidence that this current coronavirus leaked from that institute, but in China and the way secrecy works and the lack of controls, it’s certainly possible that this outbreak of this animal virus could have come from one of their biological weapons labs.
There’s also a second facility in Wuhan that’s also linked to the biological weapons program. Again, that’s a secret program that last year the State Department in it’s annual report on arms compliance stated fairly bluntly that they believe that China is engaged in a covert offensive biological weapons program.
Gertz returned to the show on January 27, claiming, “Obviously, the question of their covert biological weapons program should come into play here.” Bannon replied, “Your point is that there are no coincidences” related to the coronavirus, and the lab facility raises “certain suspicions.”
From the January 27, 2020, edition of War Room: Pandemic
BILL GERTZ: Obviously, the question of their covert biological weapons program should come into play here because, you know, there is only one declared hospital, research center, laboratory in Wuhan — in all of China — and it’s in Wuhan, capable of dealing with this level 4 of infectious diseases. And then you have then —
STEVE BANNON (HOST): Your point is there are no coincidences, if the level 4 [facility] that was built by the French for them in 2007 is in Wuhan, then that leads to certain suspicions.
GERTZ: Absolutely. This has, you know, the Chinese have to respond to this.
Bannon’s guest Dr. Steven Hatfill, an expert who previously worked at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, told the host repeatedly that the theory about coronavirus leaked out of an infectious disease research facility was incorrect, adding, “You know, I’m sitting in an SL4 laboratory right now, and there is no way you could get anything out of here. There’s no way a bad guy could get in.”
From the January 29 edition of War Room: Pandemic:
STEVE BANNON (HOST): Today, The Washington Post is out there, mocking and ridiculing The Washington Times, Bill Gertz, one of our colleagues reporting about the Wuhan level 4 laboratory, saying it’s a fringe theory, that anything could have come out of that laboratory, et cetera. We’re not trying to make an assertion that they were building a biological weapon. But given the fact that there’s now no direct link at least as shown today between patient zero and the market, it maybe some that’s later. How do you think this thing started?
DR. STEVEN HATFILL: I think it was natural. You know, I’m sitting in an SL4 laboratory right now, and there is no way you could get anything out of here. There’s no way a bad guy can get in. The people around me are of the highest professional caliber, both mentally, technically, emotionally, and every other consideration. I’m sorry but I kind of downplay the fact that this came out of a BW laboratories.
BANNON: Well, I think that’s fantastic. I think people need to hear that. I think that’s great. And why do you come to this conclusion?
After this exchange, Bannon ignored Hatfill’s expertise and returned to his irresponsible speculation, declaring that “there are no coincidences.”
From the January 29, 2020, edition of War Room: Pandemic
STEVE BANNON (HOST): Now, people will tell you that’s also where biological warfare are done, those types of places. That’s why there’s so much focus — Bill Gertz’s articles in the Washington Times focus very much on this level four lab that is in Wuhan, right. And I’m not a believer, as you know, I’m not a conspiracy guy, I always tell you it’s out there in plain daylight. The party at Davos, the way they roll is right up in your grill and there are no coincidences.
On February 1, Bannon again asked Hatfill about the theory, and again Hatfill rejected it:
STEVE BANNON (HOST): Also Zero Hedge, who I’m a huge fan of, Zero Hedge has had this analysis of what the Chinese lab and the two Chinese — the Canadian lab in I think Winnipeg, that there are now issues — one of the Chinese scientists took some of the viruses back to Wuhan. I’m not a conspiracy theory guy, not a deep state guy, never have been because I say it’s all up there in your face, the party at Davos, the way the whole thing rolls is in your grill you just have to see it. But there are no coincidences.
These are the elite institutions in the world the french built one from the ground up for the Chinese, it just randomly happened to be in Wuhan, right? And relatively in geospatial terms relatively close to the market, a mile or two. There’s been tons of things, they’re using HIV serum to cure people there. This report comes out and it’s been tweeted out all over. Bill Gertz, Washington Times, done some good reporting. The Post calls it a fringe kook theory Miles Guo put something up, said he had a report from inside the CCP and Politifact saying he’s lying so it’s all over the map.
But in your assessment, at what you see in [INAUDIBLE], I asked you to look overnight at this, where do you think we stand as people know the information today? Is this something that’s naturally occurred? Do you think there’s a possibility in what you read so far that it gives you even a scintilla that this could be some sort of weaponization thing gone wrong that somehow got out of the lab.
DR. STEVEN HATFILL: From what I’ve looked at I think the authors of these papers are overreaching a bit. Now that said this is an odd virus its genome. It’s got a very, very, long, very different from the other SARS virus.
Now, the unsubstantiated theory is being repeated by U.S. government officials in a position of power to take action. According to a report from Business Insider, during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) pointed out the proximity of the outbreak to “China’s only bio-safety level four ‘superlaboratory’ that works with the world’s most deadly pathogens to include, yes, coronavirus.”