Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Fox-Trump feedback loop has been a dangerous factor undermining the United States’ response to the crisis. Now, as CBS News’ 60 Minutes documented on Sunday night, right-wing media misinformation about the coronavirus’s origins — the idea that it originated in an infectious disease research laboratory in Wuhan, China — has even resulted in the Trump administration shutting down funding for actual pandemic research.
CBS anchor Scott Pelley spotlighted infectious disease researcher Dr. Peter Daszak, head of the New York-based nonprofit medical organization EcoHealth Alliance, which just recently lost a $3.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). As CBS noted, Daszak's “work is helping in the search for a COVID-19 cure.”
The broadcast traced the chain of events back to when Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) said during an April 14 appearance on Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight: “The NIH gives this $3.7 million grant to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. They then advertise that they need coronavirus researchers. Following that, coronavirus erupts in Wuhan.”
Newsmax correspondent Emerald Robinson then asked President Donald Trump about the supposed grant during a White House briefing on April 17 — attributing this grant to actions by the Obama administration — to which Trump said he would end it “very quickly.”
But these allegations were untrue.
“There never was a $3.7 million U.S. grant to the Wuhan lab,” Pelley explained. The grant was actually to EcoHealth, of which about $100,000 per year went toward working with the Wuhan facility — and even that could only take place after careful review by the NIH.
The specific claim that $3.7 million was sent to the Wuhan lab has been spread by a variety of sources, such as when the U.K.-based Daily Mail on April 11 mentioned “documents” it obtained that it said showed scientists in Wuhan had “experimented on bats as part of a project funded by the US National Institutes of Health”; the article featured comments from Gaetz regarding the Wuhan Institute.
And on April 26, Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani tweeted:
PolitiFact rated the claim as “False,” noting, “The grant was made in 2014, and the amount that went to the lab was a bit under $600,000. The grant restriction did not apply to identifying naturally occurring viruses.”
In an interview on a New York talk radio show on April 26, Giuliani opened a new rhetorical front to pin the blame on another target: Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease and a target of right-wing ire since the crisis began. Outlets such as The Washington Times, RedState, and Gateway Pundit all picked up on Giuliani’s false allegations attempting to tie Fauci to this supposed large grant of money to the lab.
Fauci has repeatedly dismissed the right-wing media’s conspiracy theories surrounding COVID-19, and in an article published last week in National Geographic, he reaffirmed not only that the virus was not manipulated artificially in a lab, but also dismissed the secondary conspiracy theory that it could have been discovered occurring naturally but then leaked from the facility in the course of other research work:
“If you look at the evolution of the virus in bats and what's out there now, [the scientific evidence] is very, very strongly leaning toward this could not have been artificially or deliberately manipulated … Everything about the stepwise evolution over time strongly indicates that [this virus] evolved in nature and then jumped species,” Fauci says. Based on the scientific evidence, he also doesn’t entertain an alternate theory‐that someone found the coronavirus in the wild, brought it to a lab, and then it accidentally escaped.
Earlier in the crisis, Fox Business anchor Maria Bartiromo and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) actively pushed the conspiracy theory that the coronavirus was released from the Wuhan research facility. They and other voices on Fox News repeatedly cited a study from the respected medical journal The Lancet to allege that the virus did not come from the city’s wet market — and therefore it must have come from a laboratory — even as The Lancet itself has disavowed the very notion that right-wing media are trying to spin.
More recently, Fox Business host Lou Dobbs said, “I personally believe it's entirely possible that they engineered the Wuhan virus.” And just last week, Fox host Tucker Carlson claimed that a multinational intelligence dossier “confirms much of what we've suspected” about the virus coming from the Wuhan facility. Intelligence professionals have refuted the fringe theory and the claim that the dossier even supported the idea amid this latest push from Fox and other Murdoch media outlets, such as The Daily Telegraph in Sydney, Australia.
Other right-wing media voices from outside Fox News have also pushed this theory:
The Washington Times ran an article in late January, titled “Coronavirus may have originated in lab linked to China's biowarfare program.” That article now contains a disclaimer at the top: “Editor’s note (March 25, 2020): Since this story ran, scientists outside of China have had a chance to study the SARS-CoV-2 virus. They concluded it does not show signs of having been manufactured or purposefully manipulated in a lab, though the exact origin remains murky and experts debate whether it may have leaked from a Chinese lab that was studying it.”
Steve Bannon, Trump’s former Chief White House Strategist, has spread the idea and given interviews to one of his financial benefactors, Chinese billionaire-in-exile Guo Wengui. At one point, however, Bannon interviewed an actual virologist who told him that idea was “a load of crap.”
Right-wing talk show host Rush Limbaugh, who Trump recently awarded the Medal of Freedom, declared in February: “It probably is a ChiCom laboratory experiment that is in the process of being weaponized. All superpower nations weaponize bioweapons. They experiment with them.”
Sebastian Gorka, far-right political commentator and former deputy assistant to Trump, agreed on the April 27 edition of his radio show that “one of the most likely scenarios” is that China deliberately released the virus to the rest of the world in order to take down other countries’ economies.
Sinclair Broadcasting host Eric Bolling, who was in regular communications with the White House about the pandemic back in March, has repeatedly asked about this theory in interviews with White House officials and members of Congress. In one example, he told the U.S. assistant secretary for health: “This virus feels to me that it was more engineered than simply someone eating a bat in China in a wet market and it jumping from animal to human.”
One America News Network, a far-wing outlet repeatedly promoted by Trump himself, has been tying in the idea about the Wuhan lab together with other conspiracy theories about billionaire philanthropists Bill Gates and George Soros, the “deep state,” and population control.
Update (5/11/20, 6:00 p.m.): This post has been updated for clarity.