The superspreaders behind top COVID-19 conspiracy theories
As the coronavirus spread across the globe, so too did speculation about its origins. Perhaps the virus escaped from a lab. Maybe it was engineered as a bioweapon.
Legitimate questions about the virus created perfect conditions for conspiracy theories. In the absence of knowledge, guesswork and propaganda flourished.
University professors with no evidence or training in virology were touted as experts. Anonymous social media users posed as high-level intelligence officials. And from China to Iran to Russia to the United States, governments amplified claims for their own motives.
The Associated Press collaborated with the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab on a nine-month investigation to identify the people and organisations behind some of the most viral misinformation about the origins of the coronavirus.
Their claims were explosive. Their evidence was weak. These are the superspreaders.
WHO HE IS: A Harvard trained law professor at the University of Illinois, Professor Boyle drafted a 1989 law banning biological weapons and has advised the nation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Palestinian Authority.
Professor Boyle has no academic degree in virology or biology but is a longstanding critic of research on pathogens. He has claimed Israeli intelligence was involved in the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing; that SARS, the swine flu and Ebola have been genetically modified; and that West Nile virus and Lyme disease escaped from a US biowarfare lab. He has also claimed that Microsoft founder Bill Gates “was involved” in the spread of Zika.
COVID CLAIM: Professor Boyle says the coronavirus is a genetically engineered bioweapon that escaped from a high-level lab in Wuhan, China. He maintains it shows signs of nanotechnological tinkering and the insertion of proteins from HIV, the human immunodeficiency virus. He alleges that US researchers helped create it, and that thousands of doctors, scientists, and elected leaders are conspiring to hide the truth.
Professor Boyle promoted his claim in an email to a list of news organisations and personal contacts on January 24, 2020. That same day, he was interviewed on a podcast called “Geopolitics and Empire.” That podcast was cited by a little-known Indian website, GreatGameIndia, and went viral, with Professor Boyle’s comments picked up and featured in Iranian-state TV, Russian state media, and fringe websites in the US and around the world. He’s since repeated his claims on Alex Jones’ show Infowars.
EVIDENCE? Professor Boyle bases his argument on circumstantial evidence: the presence of a Biosafety Level 4 lab in Wuhan, the fact that other viruses have escaped from other labs in the past, and his belief that governments around the world are engaged in a secret arms race over biological weapons.
Biosafety Level 4 labs – or BSL4 labs – have the highest level of biosafety precautions.
“It seemed to me that obviously, this came out of the Wuhan BSL 4,” Professor Boyle told The Associated Press, dismissing the accepted explanation that the virus emerged from the Wuhan market as “completely preposterous.”
A World Health Organisation team concluded it was extremely unlikely the virus escaped from the Wuhan lab, and other experts have said the virus shows no signs of genetic manipulation.
WHAT IT IS: A website that was an early promoter of the theory that the coronavirus was engineered.
Its January 26, 2020, story on “Coronavirus bioweapon-How China Stole the Coronavirus From Canada and Weaponised It” was picked up by far-right financial blog Zero Hedge and shared to thousands of social media users before it was promoted by conservative website RedStateWatcher and received more than six million engagements.
COVID CLAIM: GreatGameIndia claims that the virus, which has now killed more than two million people worldwide, was first found in the lungs of a Saudi man and then sent to labs in the Netherlands and then Canada, where it was stolen by Chinese scientists. The article relies in part on speculation from Dany Shoham, a virologist and former lieutenant colonel in Israeli military intelligence.
Mr Shoham was quoted discussing the possibility that COVID is linked to bioweapon research in a January 26, 2020, article in the conservative US newspaper The Washington Times. In that article, Mr Shoham was quoted saying there was no evidence to support the idea that the virus has escaped from a lab, but GreatGameIndia did not include that context in its piece.