A conspiracy theory about Covid-19 escaping from the Wuhan Institute of Virology is the Trump administration’s Iraqi WMD. And the Washington Post’s Josh Rogin is playing the role of Judith Miller.
With US deaths from Covid-related complications peaking above 30,000, allies of President Donald Trump are taking their anti-China public relations blitz to new heights of absurdity, hoping to legitimize a conspiracy theory blaming a Chinese biological research lab for engineering the novel coronavirus.
The theory points to the Wuhan Institute of Virology as the culprit behind the pandemic, either through an accidental leak caused by unsafe research on bat coronaviruses or deliberately, by manufacturing a biological weapon. First deployed in January by the right-wing Washington Times, the conspiracy was dismissed and discredited at the time by journalists and scientists.
With an apparent cue this April from a Trump administration desperate to shift the blame for its feckless coronavirus response, Fox News and the Washington Post have fished the story out of the right-wing’s political wet market and polished it off for public consumption
Though neither outlet published a single piece of concrete evidence to support their claim, the story has gained traction among even fervently anti-Trump elements of the political establishment.
Regarding the real source of Covid-19, the conclusion by a team of American, British and Australian researchers could not be more clear: “we do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible…. Our analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus,” the virologists stated in a March 17 article published in the scientific journal, Nature.
A group of 27 public health scientists from 8 countries signed an open letter this March in the Lancet medical journal issuing support to scientists and health professionals in China and “strongly condemn[ing] conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin.” The letter states that the scientific findings to date “overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife, as have so many other emerging pathogens.”
Having spent the past four years railing against the “fake news media” and “deep state” elements in the national security bureaucracy for their campaign to paint him and his allies as Russian collaborators, Trump is now employing the same tactics he condemned to ratchet up conflict with China. By planting fake news about Chinese evildoing through anonymous US officials and dodgy document dumps, the White House appears to hope that an escalated conflict abroad will paper over its failures at home.
Trump’s deployment of conspiracy theories about a Chinese lab not only mirrors the tactics his opponents used to ramp up the Russiagate narrative, it recalls the successful disinformation campaign neoconservatives in the George W. Bush administration enacted when they planted a seemingly explosive revelation about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction with New York Times correspondent Judith Miller.
The august reputation of the Times conferred legitimacy on the bunk WMD story, enabling the Bush administration to sell the invasion of Iraq to the Beltway political class across partisan lines. Miller was ultimately exposed as a fraudster and went to jail to protect her neocon sources, but not before thousands of American service members were killed in Iraq and many, many more Iraqis died in the chaos they spawned.
Today, as the Trump administration ratchets up its propaganda war against China to a disturbing new level, a neoconservative columnist at the Washington Post is filling Miller’s shoes.
From dormant conspiracy theory to Iraqi WMD-style disinformation weapon
The theory that Covid-19 virus escaped from a biological research lab in Wuhan, China was revived on April 14 in a dubiously sourced Washington Post column by Josh Rogin. A neoconservative pundit whose bio lists past work at the Japanese Embassy, Rogin has spent years agitating for regime change against the countries comprising the Bush administration’s “axis of evil.”
Toward the end of his article, Rogin admitted, “We don’t know whether the novel coronavirus originated in the Wuhan lab.” Up until that point, however, he offered every possible insinuation that the virus had indeed emerged from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. His article appeared to be an intelligence plant that depended heavily on documents dumped by US officials eager to turn up the heat on China.
The Post columnist’s hypothesis rested largely on a January 2018 cable from the US Embassy in Beijing he claimed to have innocently “obtained.” The cable warned that “the [Wuhan] lab’s work on bat coronaviruses and their potential human transmission represented a risk of a new SARS-like pandemic.” But as we explain later, Rogin distorted the nature of the research in question and subsequently refused to publish the rest of the US cable when pressed to do so by scientists.
While shielding his credibility behind caveats, Rogin turned to Xiao Qiang, a US-backed regime change activist deceptively identified as a “research scientist,” to argue the Wuhan lab theory was “a legitimate question that needs to be investigated and answered.” No virologists or epidemiologists were quoted by Rogin.
Rogin’s article came in for strident criticism by Dr. Angela Rasmussen, a Columbia University virologist, who called his claims about the Chinese lab “extremely vague,” and stated he failed to “demonstrate a clear and specific risk.” But by this point, a disinformation operation apparently guided by the White House was in full swing.
On April 15, the day after Rogin’s op-ed appeared, right-wing Fox News correspondent Bret Baier published a remarkably similar article which stated, “there is increasing confidence that the Covid-19 outbreak likely originated in a Wuhan laboratory…” Like Rogin, Baier offered no concrete evidence to support his incendiary claim, relying instead on unspecified “classified and open-source documents” from “US sources” which he admitted he had not personally viewed.
That evening, the arch-neoconservative Republican Sen. Tom Cotton launched a carefully choreographed tirade on Fox News. “Bret Baier’s reporting shows that the Chinese communist party is responsible for every single death, every job lost, every retirement nest egg lost, from this coronavirus,” Cotton thundered. “And Xi Jinping and his Chinese communist apparatchiks must be made to pay the price.”
The well-timed spectacle of Cotton’s appearance suggested close coordination between his office, the Trump administration, and their media allies to sell the conspiracy theory to the public
Meanwhile, leading lights of the liberal anti-Trump commentariat burnished Rogin’s article with the sheen of bipartisan respectability. After it was shared by New York Magazine columnist Yashar Ali, New York Times columnist Charles Blow expressed his own amazement at the supposedly revelatory column – “I didn’t see this coming.” Buzzfeed’s Tom Gara went a step further, proclaiming the “escaped from a lab theory” to be “totally plausible” in a tweet sharing the op-ed. Even the Columbia Journalism Review wrote that Rogin’s piece “contained bombshell new reporting,” ignoring the Washington Post columnist’s well-established history as a publicist for the neoconservative movement.
MSNBC host Chris Hayes also appeared to be taken in by Rogin’s conspiracy:
On April 17, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo elevated the baseless theory to the global stage when he stated, “We are still asking the Chinese Communist Party to allow experts to get into that virology lab so that we can determine precisely where this virus began.”
That same day, Trump declared that “it seems to make sense” that the virus had been manufactured in a lab in Wuhan. Like Cotton and Pompeo, he offered no evidence to support his hunch.
Six months away from a presidential election, and in the midst of a gruesome public health crisis that threatened to plunge the US economy into a depression, a fringe conspiracy theory had become the centerpiece of Trump’s culture war against China. In fact, the story first appeared as a trial balloon launched by a right-wing newspaper in January, back when few in the US were paying close attention to the Covid outbreak.
The oddball origins of the Wuhan lab theory
On January 24, a shocking headline blared from the pages of the Washington Times, a right-wing paper owned by the South Korean cult known as the Unification Church. “Coronavirus may have originated in a lab linked to China’s biowarfare program,” the paper announced.
Its source for the remarkable claim was a former lieutenant colonel in an Israeli military intelligence unit named Danny Shoham. “Coronaviruses [particularly SARS] have been studied in the institute and are probably held therein,” Shoham remarked to the Washington Times, referring to the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Though Shoham suggested “outward virus infiltration might take place either as leakage or as an indoor unnoticed infection of a person that normally went out of the concerned facility,” he ultimately conceded (as virtually every other expert has so far): “so far there isn’t evidence or indication for such incident.”
Shoham is currently a fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, a Likud Party-linked research center based at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University. A look at his work for the institute reveals a clear dedication to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s agenda, with a particular focus on containing Iran and pressing the case for regime change in Syria. The Begin-Sadat Center has previously urged the West against defeating ISIS, positing the jihadist group as a “useful tool” in undermining the Syrian government and Iran.
Besides Shoham, the Washington Times cited a broadcast report by Radio Free Asia (RFA) insinuating that the Wuhan Institute of Virology could have been the source of Covid-19.
Left unmentioned was RFA’s role as a US government news agency created during the Cold War as part of a “Worldwide Propaganda Network Built by the CIA”, according to the New York Times. RFA is operated by the US Agency for Global Media (formerly the Broadcasting Board of Governors), a federal agency of the US government operating under the watch of the State Department. Describing its work as “vital to US national interests,” the US Agency’s primary broadcasting goal is to be “consistent with the broad foreign policy objectives of the United States.”
Larry Klayman, a right-wing Republican lawyer with a penchant for filing nuisance suits against political foes, quickly seized on the Washington Times story as the basis for a $20 billion class action lawsuit against China in US federal court. (Sen. Cotton and the neoconservative Henry Jackson Society have since called for aggressive US lawfare actions against China over coronavirus).
Days after the Washington Times article, the paper’s mainstream rival, the Washington Post, published a lengthy article quoting virologists who refuted the theory that Covid-19 had been engineered, testifying to the quality of research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and pouring cold water on the theory that the virus could have been a bioweapon.
On March 25, two months after its report first appeared, the Washington Times added an editorial note to the article essentially disowning its thesis: “Since this story ran,” the note read, “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.”
That same day, Danny Shoham told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, “As of now there are still no unequivocal findings that clearly tell us what the source of the virus is.”
The conspiracy theory seemed to have floundered. In its desperation to revive the seemingly dead story over two months later, the Trump administration apparently turned to the same outlet that had initially debunked it: the Washington Post.
Spinning State Department cables into sinister Chinese schemes
The April 14 column by the Washington Post’s Josh Rogin that brought the Wuhan lab conspiracy back from the dead read like a classic State Department document dump. Relying on a pair of two-year old cables from the US Embassy in Beijing, Rogin stoked suspicions about alleged safety issues at a lab studying coronaviruses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).
The Chinese facility is a biosafety level 4 (BSL-4) lab, the highest international standard of biosafety precaution. Dozens of BSL-4 facilities are in operation around the world — including 13 facilities in the US alone as of 2013. “The ultimate goal of BSL-4 research,” according to Scientific American, “[is] to advance toward prevention and treatment of deadly diseases.”
Rogin based his fear-mongering about alleged safety concerns with the Chinese lab on a single, vague comment by US embassy officials with no apparent scientific expertise. “During interactions with scientists at the WIV laboratory,” the cable reads, “they noted the new lab has a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory.”
However, the main takeaway of the State Department cables dumped on Rogin undermines the columnist’s most sensational claims. In the documents, US officials put more emphasis on the value of the research conducted in the Wuhan lab to predict and prevent potential coronavirus outbreaks than they did on safety concerns.
“Most importantly,” the cable states, “the researchers also showed that various SARS-like coronaviruses can interact with ACE2, the human receptor identified for SARS-coronavirus. This finding strongly suggests that SARS-like coronaviruses from bats can be transmitted to humans to cause SARS-like diseases. From a public health perspective, this makes the continued surveillance of SARS-like coronaviruses in bats and study of the animal-human interface critical to future emerging coronavirus outbreak prediction and prevention.”
Dr. Angela Rasmussen, a virologist and Associate Research Scientist at the Center of Infection and Immunity at the Columbia University School of Public Health, pointed out that the cable “argues that it’s important to continue working on bat CoVs because of their potential as human pathogens, but doesn’t suggest that there were safety issues specifically relating to WIV’s work on bat CoVs capable of using human ACE2 as a receptor.”
Ultimately, Rogin was forced to admit that there was no evidence to support his insinuations, conceding in the penultimate paragraph of the article, “We don’t know whether the novel coronavirus originated in the Wuhan lab”.
While Rogin claimed that it was an “unusual step” for US embassy officials to visit the lab in Wuhan, international exchanges are extremely common, as is collaboration between American and Chinese researchers. Since opening in 2015, WIV has received visits from scientists, health experts, and government officials from over a dozen countries.
The facility in question, the National High-level Biosafety Laboratory, is the product of joint-collaboration between China and France, and certified by authorities in both countries along with International Organization for Standardization (ISO) standards in 2016. Since 2015, eight delegations of French government officials, scientists, and health professionals have visited the lab.
It is important to note that France, the country with the most experience with and knowledge of the Wuhan lab other than China, has strongly rejected reports that the novel coronavirus originated in the facility. “We would like to make it clear that there is to this day no factual evidence corroborating recent reports in the US press linking the origins of Covid-19 and the work of the P4 [or BSL-4] laboratory of Wuhan, China,” an official at President Emmanuel Macron’s office said on April 18.
According to the WHO, “much investment was made in staff training”, with researchers being trained in the US, France, Canada, and Australia and then in house before the lab became operational. Chinese researchers have been forthright and transparent in their safety protocol, publishing, in May 2019, an overview of their training program for laboratory users in a US CDC publication on emerging infectious diseases.
Rogin’s faux “scientist” is a US government-backed regime change activist
nstead of discussing issues surrounding WIV with scientific experts, Rogin attempted to bolster his claims by relying on the speculation of anonymous Trump administration officials and Xiao Qiang, an anti-Chinese government activist with a long history of US government funding.
Rogin referred to Xiao merely as a “research scientist”, dishonestly attempting to furnish academic credibility for the professional political dissident. In fact, Xiao has no expertise in any science and teaches classes on “digital activism”, “internet freedom”, and “blogging China.” Revealingly, Rogin completely omitted the real record of Xiao Qiang as an anti-Chinese government activist.
For over 20 years, Xiao has worked with and been funded by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the main arm of US government regime change efforts in countries targeted by Washington. The NED has funded and trained right-wing opposition movements from Venezuela to Nicaragua to Hong Kong, where violent separatist elements spent much of 2019 agitating for an end to Chinese rule.
Xiao served as the Executive Director of the New York-based NGO Human Rights in China from 1991 to 2002. As a long-time grantee of the NED, he served as Vice-Chairman of the Steering Committee of the World Movement for Democracy, an international “network of networks” founded by the NED and “for which the NED serves as the secretariat”. Xiao is also the editor-in-chief of China Digital Times, a publication which he founded in 2003 which is also funded by the NED.
Using “unverified theories” to smear a Chinese scientist
To slyly suggest the Wuhan Institute of Virology as the source of the Covid-19 outbreak, Rogin homed in on the record of Shi Zhengli, the head of the WIV’s research team studying bat coronaviruses, distorting her record to paint her as a reckless mad scientist. Rogin claimed that “other scientists questioned whether Shi’s team was taking unnecessary risks” and that “the US government had imposed a moratorium on funding” the type of research that Shi’s team was undertaking.
To back up his assertion, Rogin cited a 2015 article in Nature on a debate over risks associated with an experiment that created a hybrid version of a bat coronavirus. Yet the article did not even name Shi, referring instead to a study that took place in the US – not Wuhan – that was led by a team of American infectious-disease researchers at the University of North Carolina. Shi contributed to the study as one of thirteen co-authors, ten of whom worked at American universities.
According to Nature, the American-led study was “under way before the US moratorium began, and the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) allowed it to proceed while it was under review by the agency.”
Out of concern that its article was being carelessly repurposed by conspiracy theorists to suggest that coronavirus was engineered in a lab, editors at Nature placed a disclaimer at the top of the article this March which stated: “We are aware that this story is being used as the basis for unverified theories that the novel coronavirus causing COVID-19 was engineered. There is no evidence that this is true; scientists believe that an animal is the most likely source of the coronavirus.”
In his zeal to spread Cold War conspiracism, Rogin conveniently neglected to mention the disclaimer.
Scientists question Rogin’s shoddy reporting, Rogin melts down
Scientists have slammed Rogin for failing to interview any experts and relying on vague insinuations in order to push a politically-driven agenda.
Dr. Rasmussen, the Columbia University virologist, criticized Rogin’s sensational claims about the Chinese lab’s safety protocols as “extremely vague,” stating that he failed to “demonstrate a clear and specific risk.” Dr. Rasmussen went on to knock Rogin for inaccurately representing the US State Department cables and “cherry-pick[ing] quotes” in order to advance his narrative.
Dr. Stephen Goldstein, another virologist and Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Utah School of Medicine, accused Rogin of “multiple substantive, scientific gaps” and relying on “unsupported innuendo.” Revealingly, Rogin rejected their requests to publish the US State Department cables in their entirety.
After being challenged by Dr. Rasmussen, Dr. Goldstein and others over his irresponsible reporting and failure to consult scientific experts, Rogin claimed to have spoken with “top virologists,” but refused to elaborate or explain why he did not include the opinions of these alleged experts in his article.
An April 17 Forbes article by Dr. Jason Kindrachuk, an assistant professor of viral pathogenesis at the University of Manitoba, also undermined Rogin’s claims, asserting that no scientific evidence exists to support the theory that the novel coronavirus leaked from a Chinese lab.
A career of carrying water for militarists
While countless journalists have been driven out of mainstream media for challenging pro-war narratives, the Washington Post’s Rogin has made a career out of publishing sensationalist and often factually-challenged neoconservative propaganda dressed up as reporting.
After a stint at a Japanese daily newspaper and the Embassy of Japan, Rogin earned his name carrying water for the US national security state. At the Daily Beast, he teamed up with fellow neocon Eli Lake on a bogus 2013 story claiming Al Qaeda’s “Legion of Doom” gathered together for a “conference call.” An obvious product of leaks by national security hardliners seeking to paint Obama as weak on terror, Rogin and Lake were ultimately forced to qualify the non-existent “call” as a “non-telephone communication” after it came in for mockery and criticism from national security experts.
Two years later, Rogin promoted another fake story featuring photos of a column of Russian tanks resupplying pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine. The photos turned out to be years old, and depicted Russian tanks in South Ossetia.
Rogin’s upward failing trajectory led him next to Bloomberg, where he and fellow neocon cadre Eli Lake were rewarded with $275,000-a-year salaries to continue publishing stenography for foreign policy hardliners in Congress and the State Department.
Since Rogin joined the Amazon-owned Washington Post in 2017, he has pressured former White House national security advisor John Bolton to follow through on his “Troika of Tyranny” label with regime change operations against socialist states in Latin America; seized on the US killing of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to call for the US to murder Syrian President Bashar al-Assad; clamored for the US to support extremist militias in the Al Qaeda-controlled Idlib province of Syria; and suggested a former Obama official should be prosecuted in federal court for lobbying for the private Chinese communications firm, Huawei.
At the start of what became a years-long crusade to denigrate Rep. Tulsi Gabbard for her opposition to the US proxy war on Syria, Rogin was compelled to publish a 70-word-long correction after accusing Gabbard of acting as “Assad’s mouthpiece in Washington.”
Despite his long record of gaffes and feverish rhetoric, Rogin has managed to mainstream a conspiracy theory dismissed by scientists as pure bunk. Embedded at a paper that has built its brand on opposition to Trump, he provided the Trump administration with the perfect vehicle to deliver Cold War propaganda to the public. As the Post’s motto warns, “Democracy dies in darkness.”