As the coronavirus spread across the globe, so too did speculation about its origins. Perhaps the virus escaped from a lab. Maybe it was engineered as a bioweapon.
Legitimate questions about the virus created perfect conditions for conspiracy theories. In the absence of knowledge, guesswork and propaganda flourished.
College professors with no evidence or training in virology were touted as experts. Anonymous social media users posed as high-level intelligence officials. And from China to Iran to Russia to the United States, governments amplified claims for their own motives.
The Associated Press collaborated with the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab on a nine-month investigation to identify the people and organisations behind some of the most viral misinformation about the origins of the coronavirus.
Their claims were explosive. Their evidence was weak. These are the superspreaders.
Who is he? A Harvard-trained law professor at the University of Illinois, Boyle drafted a 1989 law banning biological weapons and has advised the nation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Palestinian Authority.
Boyle has no academic degree in virology or biology but is a longstanding critic of research on pathogens. He has claimed Israeli intelligence was involved in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing; that SARS, swine flu, and Ebola have been genetically modified; and that West Nile virus and Lyme disease escaped from a US bio-warfare lab. He has also claimed that Microsoft founder Bill Gates “was involved” in the spread of Zika.
COVID claim: Boyle says the coronavirus is a genetically engineered bio-weapon that escaped from a high-level lab in Wuhan, China. He maintains it shows signs of nanotechnological tinkering and the insertion of proteins from HIV, the human immunodeficiency virus. He alleges that US researchers helped create it and that thousands of doctors, scientists, and elected leaders are conspiring to hide the truth.
Boyle promoted his claim in an email to a list of news organisations and personal contacts on January 24, 2020. That same day, he was interviewed on a podcast called Geopolitics and Empire. That podcast was cited by a little-known Indian website, GreatGameIndia, and went viral with Boyle’s comments picked up and featured on Iranian state TV, Russian state media, and fringe websites in the US and around the world. He has since repeated his claims on Alex Jones’ show, Infowars.
Evidence? Boyle bases his argument on circumstantial evidence: the presence of a Biosafety Level 4 lab in Wuhan, the fact that other viruses have escaped from other labs in the past, and his belief that governments around the world are engaged in a secret arms race over biological weapons.
Biosafety Level 4 labs – or BSL4 labs – have the highest level of biosafety precautions.
“It seemed to me that obviously, this came out of the Wuhan BSL 4,” Boyle told The Associated Press, dismissing the accepted explanation the virus emerged from the Wuhan market as “completely preposterous”.
A World Health Organization team concluded it was extremely unlikely the virus escaped from the Wuhan lab, and other experts have said the virus shows no signs of genetic manipulation.
What is it? A website that was an early promoter of the theory that the coronavirus was engineered. Its January 26, 2020, story, Coronavirus bioweapon – How China Stole the Coronavirus From Canada and Weaponized It, was picked up by far-right financial blog Zero Hedge and shared to thousands of social media users before it was promoted by conservative website RedStateWatcher and received more than 6 million engagements.
COVID claim: GreatGameIndia claims that the virus, which has now killed more than 2.3 million people worldwide, was first found in the lungs of a Saudi man and then sent to labs in the Netherlands and then Canada, where it was stolen by Chinese scientists.
The article relies in part on speculation from Dany Shoham, a virologist and former lieutenant colonel in Israeli military intelligence. Shoham was quoted discussing the possibility that COVID is linked to bioweapon research in a January 26, 2020, article in the conservative US newspaper The Washington Times. In that article, Shoham was quoted saying there was no evidence to support the idea that the virus has escaped from a lab, but GreatGameIndia did not include that context in its piece.
“We do stand by our report,” said website co-founder Shelley Kasli wrote in an email. “In fact, recently Canadians released documents which corroborated our findings with Chinese scientists… A lot of information is still classified.”
Evidence? The coronavirus most likely first appeared in humans after jumping from an animal, a WHO panel announced last week, saying an alternate theory that the virus leaked from a Chinese lab was unlikely.
Top American scientists have likewise concluded the virus is of natural origin, citing clues in its genome and its similarity to SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome. Vincent Racaniello, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Columbia University, who has been studying the virus since its genome was first recorded, has said it is clear the virus was not engineered or accidentally released.
“It is something that is clearly selected in nature,” Racaniello said. “There are two examples where the sequence tells us that humans had no hand in making this virus because they would not have known to do these things.”
The Centre for Research on Globalization
What is it? The Montreal-based centre publishes articles on global politics and policy, including a healthy dose of conspiracy theories on vaccines and the September 11, 2001, attacks. It is led by Michel Chossudovsky, a professor emeritus of economics at the University of Ottawa and a conspiracy theorist who has argued the US military can control the weather.
The centre publishes authors from around the world – many of whom have advanced baseless claims about the origins of the outbreak. In February, for instance, it published an interview with Igor Nikulin suggesting the coronavirus was a US bio-weapon created to target Chinese people.
The centre’s website “has become deeply enmeshed in Russia’s broader disinformation and propaganda ecosystem” by peddling anti-US conspiracy theories, according to a 2020 US Department of State report that found seven of its supposed writers do not even exist but were created by Russian military intelligence.
COVID claim: While the centre has published several articles about the virus, one suggesting it originated in the US caught the attention of top Chinese officials.
On March 12, 2020, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian retweeted an article published by the centre headlined: China’s Coronavirus: A Shocking Update. Did The Virus Originate in the US?
“This article is very much important to each and every one of us,” he posted in English on Twitter. “Please read and retweet it. COVID-19: Further Evidence that the Virus Originated in the US.”
He also tweeted: “It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan. Be transparent! Make public your data! US owe us an explanation.”
The story by Larry Romanoff, a regular author at the centre, cites several debunked theories including one that members of the US military brought the virus to China during the Military World Games in the fall of 2019. Romanoff concludes it has now “been proven” the virus originated outside China, despite scientific consensus to the contrary.
Evidence? The WHO has concluded the coronavirus emerged in China, where the first cases and deaths were reported. No evidence has surfaced to suggest the virus was imported into China by the US.
Chossudovsky and Romanoff did not respond to repeated messages seeking comment. Romanoff’s biography lists him as a visiting professor at Fudan University in Shanghai, but he is not listed among the university’s faculty. The university did not respond to an email asking about Romanoff’s employment. His original article was taken down in the spring, but Zhao’s tweet remains up.
Who is he? A four-time failed political candidate, Nikulin is prominently quoted in Russian state media and fringe publications in the west as a biologist and former weapons inspector in Iraq who served on a UN commission on biological and chemical weapons in the 1990s.
COVID claim: Nikulin argues the US created the virus and used it to attack China. He first voiced the belief in a January 20, 2020, story by Zvezda, a state media outlet tied to the Russian military. He appeared on Russian state TV at least 18 times between January 27, 2020, and late April of that year. Once the virus reached the US, Nikulin changed his theory, saying “globalists” were using the virus to depopulate the Earth.
Nikulin has expressed support for weaponising misinformation to hurt the US in the past. On his website, he suggests claiming the US created HIV as a way to weaken the country from within. Russian intelligence mounted a similar 1980s disinformation campaign dubbed “Operation INFEKTION.”
“If you prove and declare … that the virus was bred in American laboratories, the American economy will collapse under the onslaught of billions of lawsuits by millions of AIDS carriers around the world,” Nikulin wrote on his website.
Evidence? Nikulin offered no evidence to support his assertions, and there are reasons to doubt his veracity. Former UN weapons inspector Richard Butler, for whom Nikulin claims to have worked, said he had no memory of Nikulin and his story sounded “sloppily fabricated and not credible”.
No UN records could be found to confirm his employment. In an exchange with the AP over Facebook, Nikulin insisted his claims and background are accurate, though he said some records from UN work were…