A document claiming to provide evidence the virus currently ravaging our planet was created in a lab relies on rehashing unproven and discredited theories, virologists claim. Moreover, the sources are two organizations co-founded by Steve Bannon, the former Trump adviser facing charges for defrauding donors of millions of dollars. That hasn't however prevented it being downloaded 400,000 times, and presumably convincing many people.
On September 14, four authors uploaded a document titled "Unusual Features of the SARS-CoV-2 Genome Suggesting Sophisticated Laboratory Modification Rather Than Natural Evolution and Delineation of Its Probable Synthetic Route” to Zenodo.org, an open-access repository for scientific papers. In it, they claim SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind Covid-19, has features indicating its manufacture as a bioweapon.
The document has been widely referred to as a paper, and sometimes as peer-reviewed, but this is untrue.
Zenodo serves an important function by allowing scientists to share their data sets and software. It is also used to host preprints – papers in the process of review. When science is moving fast, like during the Covid-19 pandemic, that allows researchers to read and build on each other's work without having to wait months for the review process to be completed.
Unfortunately, it can also give a sheen of scientific credibility to work with little basis.
The idea we're all suffering from a bio-weapon makes good headlines and suits certain political agendas, so unsurprisingly certain media outlets have promoted the claims uncritically. The fact that the lead author, Dr Li-Meng Yan is a virologist who fled China after alleging Covid-related cover-ups was all the authority many people needed.
However, scientists reading the work were struck by the fact it relies neither on new laboratory research, nor the verified work of others. Instead, it is speculation based on previous claims that have been similarly placed on sites like Zenodo, but haven’t survived scrutiny. The paper justifies this by claiming, “The alternative theory that the virus may have come from a research laboratory is...strictly censored on peer-reviewed journals.” Scientists demonstrating why an idea doesn't hold water is treated as censorship.
Specialists in the field have been overwhelmingly unimpressed. "This pre-print report cannot be given any credibility in its current form," Dr Andrew Preston of the University of Bath told Tech Times. Others used social media to detail numerous flaws.
Biologist and author Dr Carl Bergstrom noticed the institutions the authors give as their affiliations, “The Rule of Law Society” and “The Rule of Law Foundation”. Neither has published any previous scientific research. On investigation, Bergstrom found these are twin bodies established by Steve Bannon and exiled Chinese businessman Guo Wengui to oppose abuses by the Chinese Government.
The government of China is accused of committing enough human rights abuses to justify a hundred organizations, but these are clearly political, rather than scientific bodies. They have laboratories where viruses could be studied, or even provide the computing power for genomic analysis. If the authors were doing such research elsewhere, they would presumably have named their institutions.
Instead, the paper appears to be a perfect example of Bannon's great strength, fooling much of the media and general public with pure spin. In the case of the funds he collected supposedly to build the Mexico/America wall, but apparently redirected to support his lavish lifestyle, Bannon's motivation was money. In this case, it is more likely an attempt to take the focus off President Donald Trump's gross failures in containing the virus.
Whatever the motivation, the fact remains, there is no good evidence the virus was deliberately engineered, and plenty of reasons to think it was not.