Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon has pushed a debunked theory about the origins of the coronavirus in Wuhan, China on his daily radio broadcast War Room: Pandemic. The claim echoes fake news pushed by G News, a website that has reportedly paid him at least $1 million for consulting and offered him a position as senior editor.
War Room: Pandemic launched on January 25 as a spin-off to War Room: Impeachment, Bannon’s rapid response operation defending President Donald Trump during his Senate impeachment trial. Since the new show began, Bannon has repeatedly pushed the false narrative that the coronavirus was leaked from a covert biological weapons program at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which includes a secure research facility where scientists study highly contagious and infectious diseases.
The unfounded narrative that the coronavirus was engineered and leaked from the lab has been wholly rejected by experts, with The Washington Post labeling it a “fringe theory,” PolitiFact calling the claim made in the G News article “false,” and Foreign Policy describing it as “an outbreak of nonsense.” Rutgers University professor of chemical biology Richard Ebright told the Post that “based on the virus genome and properties there is no indication whatsoever that it was an engineered virus.”
But evidence is no object when Bannon is on a mission to propagandize. On the podcast, Bannon has repeatedly cited stories by Bill Gertz in the Washington Times that suggest, based on speculations from a single source, that the Wuhan Institute of Virology is researching biowarfare, and that the coronavirus was engineered and leaked from there. Bannon kicked off the show’s inaugural episode by interviewing Gertz to promote his flimsy reporting.
BuzzFeed recently reported on Bannon's ties to G News, a digital media outlet launched by Chinese billionaire-in-exile Guo Wengui that has also published two false stories about how the coronavirus was first introduced to residents of Wuhan. One G News story falsely alleged that the Chinese government would imminently confess that the virus was genetically engineered and leaked from a lab near the densely populated city. The other included a document purporting to validate a conspiracy theory that the Chinese military spread the disease on purpose.
Bannon’s contracts with the project were first reported in October by Axios, which showed that he had signed on to serve as a consultant for one year starting in August 2018 and was to be compensated at least $1 million. Axios also reported on a second, unsigned contract that specified Bannon would serve as a senior editor for G News starting in August 2019. According to BuzzFeed, “Guo and Bannon frequently appear together in videos on G News that attack the Chinese government.” (According to The New York Times, Guo described his connection to Bannon in a 2018 interview: “We both naturally despise the Chinese Communist Party. That’s why we’ve become partners.”) Episodes of War Room: Pandemic are also cross-posted to the G News website.
The episode also featured J. Kyle Bass, a China critic and hedge fund investor with connections to G News owner Guo, on the same day that Bass tweeted out a CBC article from July 2019, falsely claiming that “a husband and wife Chinese spy team” smuggled viral samples out of a Candian research facility to Wuhan. “Pizzagate” conspiracy theorist Jack Posobiec, who tweeted the CBC link that day with the same unsubstantiated claim, was also a guest on the episode.
Later in the show, Gertz and Bannon delved further into the thinly sourced theory. Despite admitting that “we have no evidence that this current coronavirus leaked from that institute,” Gertz speculated that “it’s certainly possible that this outbreak of this animal virus could have come from one of their biological weapons labs.” The U.S. Department of State has raised concerns regarding China’s compliance with the Biological Weapons Convention, but has not affirmatively identified the existence of such a program.
Gertz returned to the show on January 27, claiming, “Obviously, the question of their covert biological weapons program should come into play here.” Bannon replied, “Your point is that there are no coincidences” related to the coronavirus, and the lab facility raises “certain suspicions.”
Bannon’s guest Dr. Steven Hatfill, an expert who previously worked at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, told the host repeatedly that the theory about coronavirus leaked out of an infectious disease research facility was incorrect, adding, “You know, I'm sitting in an SL4 laboratory right now, and there is no way you could get anything out of here. There’s no way a bad guy could get in.” From the January 29 edition of War Room: Pandemic:
After this exchange, Bannon ignored Hatfill’s expertise and returned to his irresponsible speculation, declaring that “there are no coincidences.”
On February 1, Bannon again asked Hatfill about the theory, and again Hatfill rejected it:
Now, the unsubstantiated theory is being repeated by U.S. government officials in a position of power to take action. According to a report from Business Insider, during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) pointed out the proximity of the outbreak to “China’s only bio-safety level four ‘superlaboratory’ that works with the world’s most deadly pathogens to include, yes, coronavirus.”