As COVID-19 spreads around the world, its trajectory is being accompanied by a stream of fake news. The two most prominent conspiracy theories are almost mirror-like in their presentation. One has it that the virus was created in an American military laboratory and spread to the Chinese city of Wuhan by visiting Americans. I received an email from a friend on the left containing links about this and another acquaintance shared much the same material on Facebook. A competing theory, promoted by right-wing America media and some Republican politicians, is that the virus was created in a Chinese weapons laboratory in the city of Wuhan and unleashed, accidentally or otherwise, upon the world.
False claim one
The newspaper USA Today has a feature called Fact Check and it has looked into both theories, determining each to be false. The main thing to remember, as USA Today points out, is that virologists and medical experts are virtually unanimous in believing that the virus originated in animals and was transmitted to humans in Wuhan. It was not created in a laboratory.
The false claim about the American laboratory appears to have originated on a Montreal-based site called Centre for Research on Globalization. The author is Larry Romanoff, who describes himself as a retired management consultant and businessman who now lives in Shanghai. Romanoff wrote pieces appearing on March 4 and 11. In the latter, he says: “Not only did the virus not originate at the seafood market, it did not originate in Wuhan at all, and it has now been proven that it did not originate in China but was brought to China from another country.”
Romanoff claims that the virus may have escaped a military lab at Fort Detrick, Maryland and travelled to China along with US soldiers who participated in the Military World Games held in Wuhan in October 2019, where 9300 athletes competed on behalf of 140 nations. It would be the American soldiers, Romanoff says, who infected the street market in Wuhan.
Fact check one
Not so says USA Today in its Fact Check: “We rate this claim false because it is not supported by research. The consensus among experts researching the virus places the beginning of its spread at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, China.” The newspaper reached out to Romanoff for clarification on several of the claims made, but was unable to reach him for comment.
The Chinese government, no friend of the truth, has seized upon this discredited theory. The Globe and Mail reported on March 13 that Communist Party officials have picked up on Romanoff’s commentary and are diffusing it widely on social media and in party publications. This is an attempt to shift focus from Beijing’s suppressing news of the COVID-19 outbreak when it arose late in 2019, a cover up which cost precious time and lives.
False claim two
The opposing claim – that the virus arose from a Chinese biological weapons laboratory in Wuhan – has been making the rounds in the right-wing American media. In its Fact Check article USA Today says the story was carried in the right wing Washington Times in January. The article was written by someone named Bill Gertz, who quoted an unnamed former US military intelligence officer as saying there is a virology lab in Wuhan engaged in researching biological weapons, and that the virus originated there. I searched for the Gertz story but found that the newspaper has taken it down.
The Wuhan lab claim has been picked up by some Republican politicians and by Fox News and other outlets far right outlets. In a rambling diatribe on February 24, talk show host Rush Limbaugh first played down the seriousness of COVID-19, saying it was no worse than common strains of the flu. But then he pivoted to the Wuhan lab theory, adding a completely bizarre twist: “Some people believe it got out on purpose, that the ChiComs [Chinese communists] have a whole lot of problems based on an economy that cannot provide for the number of people they have. So losing a few people here or there is not so bad for the Chinese government.”
Trump has encouraged this fringe theory by describing COVID-19 as a “Chinese virus” and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been even more specific, describing it as a “Wuhan virus.” They have their own reasons for peddling conspiracy theories. Trump and his circle have bungled in their response to the virus and thousands of Americans are now paying the price with their lives. This is an election year in the US and Trump is desperate to shift blame to anyone but himself.
Fact check two
In its Fact Check, USA Today says: “The claim is that the coronavirus began in a Chinese laboratory. We rate this claim false, based on our research. Overwhelming scientific evidence suggests the coronavirus originated in nature, and there is no evidence to suggest otherwise.”
Behind the scenes
We know, generally, that right-wing media in the US are an echo chamber for the dark money interests that support Trump. We are less certain about who is behind the Canadian-based Centre for Research on Globalization (often called Global Research). The centre appears to be well-financed and its posts at times achieve a higher readership than those of mainstream news organizations.
The globalization centre was created in 2001 by Michel Chossudovsky, a retired economics professor from the University of Ottawa. An article in The Walrus magazine described the organization as a “conspiracy website.” It claimed, for example, that the World Trade Center buildings were not brought down by commercial airliners but rather by controlled demolition. The website has also carried numerous pieces in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian military backers.
The Globe and Mail reports that Chossudovsky “has regularly appeared on Russian-backed media outlets like Sputnik and RT, as well as Iran’s state-backed PressTV.” But it is new to have the Chinese government using information from Global Research as a source for its attacks, in this case against the US.
Sources you trust
There is nothing novel about the cynical use of propaganda but in this case the dark publicity mills are clanking amid a raging pandemic. This is a time to rely upon sources of information that you trust. It is not a time to follow the latest Facebook or Twitter posting from someone who may not give much thought before sharing information whose intent is malicious.
USA Today: Fact checking the claim that the coronavirus originated in a US lab,
USA Today: Fact checking the claim that the coronavirus originated in a Chinese lab, https://bit.ly/3agRQfx
Rush Limbaugh’s conspiracy theory, https://bit.ly/3aiSRUl
Globe and Mail: Chinese government promoting unfounded belief backed by a Canadian conspiracy theory site, https://tgam.ca/2y6OTjv