CNN investigation discredits bogus Bannon-linked COVID-19 research hyped by Fox News

“There’s just no information, Wolf, this is anything more than just made-up disinformation. What’s frightening is millions of Americans may be being fed this disinformation and actually believing it.”

From the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Fox News has repeatedly pushed the debunked right-wing media conspiracy theory that the novel coronavirus was created in a virology lab in Wuhan, China. In September, Fox gave coverage to a dubious study by Dr. Li-Meng Yan, an exiled Hong Kong virologist who claimed on Tucker Carlson Tonight that the virus was intentionally created and released by the Chinese government as a bioweapon.

Following reporting by The Daily Beast that linked the study’s origins to former Trump senior adviser Steve Bannon, an investigation of the study by CNN has found “shoddy citations, questionable sourcing, and so many scientists who say it's bunk.”

CNN spoke to dozens of scientists and experts who expressed dismay at the lack of “basic obligation to scientific practices” expressed in the paper, as well as the lack of credible sourcing in its citations. In one instance, a citation was pulled directly from an anonymous blog, while another came from a LinkedIn post. CNN also found a citation originating from a disinformation blog run by Steve Bannon.

CNN looked into the study, talking to experts who could evaluate it. Conversely, Fox’s Tucker Carlson hosted Yan to talk about her claims even as he admitted that he had “no way of verifying” if what she was claiming is actually true.

CNN investigation tears apart Yan’s study: “shoddy citations, questionable sourcing, and so many scientists who say it's bunk”

CNN investigation uncovers “shoddy” work of Dr. Li-Meng Yan. Experts told correspondent Drew Griffin that Yan’s work “lacked a basic obligation to scientific practices.” [CNN, The Situation Room, 10/21/20]

Video file

Citation From the October 21, 2020, edition of CNN's The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer

WOLF BLITZER (ANCHOR): New information coming in into a conspiracy theory about the origins of the coronavirus that’s been eagerly promoted by allies of President Trump. Our senior investigative correspondent Drew Griffin is joining us right now. Drew, you found what -- a direct link to former President Trump strategist Steve Bannon, is that what I’m hearing?

DREW GRIFFIN: That's exactly right. A disinformation campaign you might call it, all linked to a Chinese scientist in hiding who’s just everywhere on conservative media, Wolf. 


It is a right-wing-fueled conspiracy theory pushed to millions of Americans. Dr. Li-Meng Yan, a Chinese scientist in hiding, but appearing everywhere on right-wing media and claiming her two research papers prove the virus that causes COVID-19 was created in a Chinese lab and is a Chinese bioweapon. 

LI-MENG YAN: It is a modern bioweapon in an unrestricted way. 

GRIFFIN: But a CNN investigation has found shoddy citations, questionable sourcing, and so many scientists who say it's bunk. Yan’s paper is not a credible scientific work. But it is directly linked to one of Donald Trump's former top strategists, Steve Bannon. 

STEVE BANNON: Do you believe that a superspreader or someone who was actually sent and somehow has been focused on the White House and focused on President Trump? 

MILES GUO: One-hundred percent!

GRIFFIN: That “100%” comes from Chinese billionaire in exile Miles Guo, who’s using his money and Bannon’s media expertise to try to discredit the Chinese government. Bannon and Guo appeared together on Bannon’s podcast, fill the pages of a website called “G-News” and began two nonprofits together: The Rule of Law Society and Rule of Law Foundation. These are the groups who say they support Dr. Li-Meng Yan and appear on the top of her research reports. Columbia University virologist Angela Rasmussen says the papers are scientific junk. 

ANGELA RASMUSSEN: Anybody with an actual background in virology or molecular biology who reads this paper will realize that much of it is actually nonsense. 

GRIFFIN: CNN spoke to a half dozen scientists who say Yan’s papers are filled with half-truths, not scientifically tenable, one who even met with Yan and said her first study wasn't plausible. University of Michigan professor Anna Mapp says the paper lacked a basic obligation to scientific practices. 

ANNA MAPP: I was also really disturbed to see such a shoddy piece of work. 

GRIFFIN: And CNN could find no trace of Yan’s three coauthors in the U.S. or China. Yan didn't respond to tell us why. But a source tells us that those three co-authors are pseudonyms for U.S.-based Chinese scientists who fear using their own names, but the source offered no proof. Miles Guo told us, “Yan’s work is Yan’s work, independent of any editorial control by me.” Steve Bannon offered no response. Yet there is more about Yan's work. Some of the sources of her research appear not to be credible. Amanda Peiffer, who is getting a Ph.D. in chemical biology, first alerted CNN to issues with the citations at the very end of Yan's paper. 

AMANDA PEIFFER: People who aren't experts, people who aren't scientists, people who really haven't done anything. These are not coming from credible sources. I think that’s really concerning. 

GRIFFIN: A CNN analysis finds Yan’s citations include a paper that appeared only as a post on a LinkedIn, a report written by a person that CNN cannot locate running a company that does not seem to exist. Three of the citations that link to posts on a website opposed to genetically modified food. Then there is citation 23, which links to anonymous blog posts published back in March. Parts of Yan's papers appear to be pulled directly from these anonymous blogs. 

GRIFFIN: I don’t want to say copied and pasted, but it almost has that same effect.

PEIFFER: They took things the exact same figures, the exact same phrasing, and the exact same captions and put those into the report that was Yan's paper. And that -- that does not happen in science. 

GRIFFIN: And guess where one of those blogs first appeared months before Yan's paper? G-News, the disinformation news site linked to Steve Bannon and Miles Guo. 

RASMUSSEN: And 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. 


GRIFFIN: There’s just no information, Wolf, this is anything more than just made-up disinformation. What’s frightening is millions of Americans may be being fed this disinformation and actually believing it. Wolf.

BLITZER: You're absolutely right. Excellent reporting, Drew. Thank you so much for that report. 

Fox News shows on both the “straight news” and “opinion” sides have promoted Yan’s work. Tucker Carlson promoted the study even though he admitted “we have no way of verifying” it.

  • Fox News published an exclusive interview with Dr. Li-Meng Yan, framing her as a “whistleblower” accusing Beijing of a “coronavirus cover-up.” [, 7/10/20]
  • Frequent Fox News guest Gordon Chang told Tucker Carlson that Yan was credible and that he believed the virus escaped a lab. [, 7/10/20]
  • Yan appeared on Fox “straight news” program Bill Hemmer Reports to continue to accuse China of covering up information about the virus. [Fox News, Bill Hemmer Reports, 7/13/20]
  • In September, after the institute linked to Bannon and Guo published her “study,” Yan told Tucker Carlson that the virus was intentionally created in a lab by the Chinese government and is not a naturally occuring virus. [Fox News, Tucker Carlson Tonight, 9/15/20]
  • Yan also claimed that COVID-19 was intentionally released by the Chinese government as a bioweapon. Carlson responded that his program “is not the forum for the details of your research -- I don't have the grounding necessary to ask you the right questions -- this is where you wish for a functioning media." [Fox News, Tucker Carlson Tonight, 9/15/2020
  • The day after Yan made these claims, Carlson told viewers that he had “no way of verifying” if the claims made by Yan were actually true, but he continued to cite her description of the coronavirus as a “Frankenstein bioweapon.” [Fox News, Tucker Carlson Tonight, 9/16/20]
Video file

Citation From the September 16, 2020, edition of Fox News' Tucker Carlson Tonight 

TUCKER CARLSON (HOST): Those are her claims. Are they true? We have no way of verifying them. We do know that Dr. Li-Meng Yan is not a quack. She's authored peer-reviewed papers on coronavirus transmission in both Nature magazine and The Lancet. Those are two of the most respected publications in all of science. 

Her paper on the origin of COVID-19, which she has published online, is not frivolous. In it, she points to specific evidence for the claims that she makes. She identifies so-called “cut sites," which are frequently used in genomic engineering, that would allow scientists to swap in sequences from other viruses to create what she described last night as a “Frankenstein bioweapon."

She writes that she has firsthand knowledge that the Chinese military has a template virus with cut sites, designed for that very purpose. 

Once again, we can't verify this, but it's clear that Dr. Li-Meng Yan is a serious person. She is making a very serious claim. 

So, within a few hours of our interview last night, a video of the segment reached 1.3 million people on Facebook. And why wouldn't it? The coronavirus pandemic has touched the life of every American, and justifiably people want to know where it came from. 

But Facebook still doesn't want you to know that. 

  • Lou Dobbs hosted Yan to tout the study. Dobbs saluted Yan for “speaking out forthrightly.” [Fox Business, Lou Dobbs Tonight, 9/23/20]
  • Chang reiterated to Carlson that he believed the virus came from a lab, citing Yan. [Fox News, Tucker Carlson Tonight, 10/5/20]
  • Carlson later reiterated the claims before a follow-up interview with Yan. [Fox News, Tucker Carlson Tonight, 10/6/20]