Medical journal Lancet disavows coronavirus conspiracy theories after being cited alongside right-wing disinformation

Steve Bannon, Tucker Carlson, Erick Erickson, and Sen. Tom Cotton used the study to push conspiracy theories about coronavirus

For more than a month, right-wing media personalities have used a study published by a respected British medical journal to promote disinformation about the novel coronavirus outbreak that began in Wuhan, China, at the end of 2019. Now the journal is disavowing those reckless claims, releasing a statement “to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting [the disease] does not have a natural origin” and adding that “conspiracy theories do nothing but create fear, rumours, and prejudice that jeopardise our global collaboration in the fight against this virus.”

Among the many conspiracy theories about the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19 is a claim suggesting that the virus was manufactured at the Wuhan Institute of Virology located near the epicenter of the outbreak. Prominent right-wing commentators like Fox News’ Tucker Carlson and former presidential adviser Steve Bannon have promoted this false narrative.

To lend credence to this theory, right-wing pundits cite a January 24 study published by The Lancet that suggests some of the first patients to contract COVID-19 were not exposed to a seafood market in Wuhan — a finding contradicting an initial medical theory that posited the virus began there. From the study:

The symptom onset date of the first patient identified was Dec 1, 2019. None of his family members developed fever or any respiratory symptoms. No epidemiological link was found between the first patient and later cases. The first fatal case, who had continuous exposure to the market, was admitted to hospital because of a 7-day history of fever, cough, and dyspnoea. 5 days after illness onset, his wife, a 53-year-old woman who had no known history of exposure to the market, also presented with pneumonia and was hospitalised in the isolation ward.

The study’s authors did not speculate about where COVID-19 may have started if not at the Wuhan market. But that has not stopped conservative pundits from taking cues from repeated Fox News interviews with Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), a major proponent of the conspiracy theory in Congress who used the study to justify claims that COVID-19 was manufactured in the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Over the last month, right-wing pundits have repeatedly mentioned The Lancet and its January 24 study in podcasts, on radio shows, and in TV appearances while suggesting that the Chinese government is hiding key facts about COVID-19, including that it was supposedly manufactured in a virology “superlab.”

Bradley Thayer, a political science professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio who’s authored books and articles critical of the Chinese government, mentioned he Lancet’s study to Bannon on the second episode of his Salem Radio Network show War Room: Pandemic. Bannon has gone on to mention the study and hype up the journal’s credentials in at least three more episodes since then and using his platform to repeatedly push the claim that COVID-19 was manufactured by China.

Bannon’s promotion of The Lancet study alongside COVID-19 conspiracy theories appears to have come a few days before Cotton began mentioning it, first on Twitter on January 30 and then in interviews with Fox News.

Other instances of right-wing media figures promoting The Lancet’s study and credentials to hype conspiracy theories about the coronavirus include:

  • Talk radio conspiracy theorist Doug Hagmann referenced The Lancet study and discussed Cotton’s claims regarding the outbreak’s potential origins before noting that “Wuhan has China’s only … biosafety level 4 superlab” and claiming “they work with this virus,” adding “I don’t believe in coincidences.”

  • On his radio show, conservative pundit Erick Erickson cited Cotton’s claims and The Lancet study before speculating that “a mass emission of sulfur dioxide from Wuhan” could be from “the burning of bodies.”

  • Co-host Rick Burgess of radio show Rick & Bubba referenced Cotton’s claims about The Lancet to lend credence to a conjecture made by co-host Bubba the Love Sponge.

  • Cotton, in an interview with MSNBC contributor Hugh Hewitt, cited The Lancet study, saying that though “natural causes” are “still the most likely hypothesis” about the origin of COVID-19, “we at least have to ask the question whether or not it’s connected to that laboratory.” 

In The Lancet’s statement rejecting the conspiracy theories, public health scientists rebuked the claim that COVID-19 was man-made (citations removed):

The rapid, open, and transparent sharing of data on this outbreak is now being threatened by rumours and misinformation around its origins. We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin. Scientists from multiple countries have published and analysed genomes of the causative agent, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), and they overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife, as have so many other emerging pathogens. … Conspiracy theories do nothing but create fear, rumours, and prejudice that jeopardise our global collaboration in the fight against this virus. We support the call from the Director-General of WHO to promote scientific evidence and unity over misinformation and conjecture.