Within a few weeks of the novel coronavirus spreading from China to the rest of the world, a pernicious narrative began to take root online: the suggestion that the virus SARS-CoV-2 was a biological weapon created in a lab.1
In mid-January 2020, Dr. Li-Meng Yan, a researcher at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), gave credence to this idea when she told her favorite YouTuber — Wang Dinggang, a vocal critic of the Chinese government, and close associate of exiled Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui2 — about rumors she had heard about the virus’ origins. Wang repeated the conversations on his channel without naming her “because officials could make the person disappear. ”3
On January 25, 2020, a hyperpartisan news outlet called G News published an article further pushing the bioweapon conspiracy theory. It was titled, “Breaking news: China will admit coronavirus coming from its P4 lab.”4 G News was not the only media outlet pushing the narrative, but its involvement was significant because G News is a media outlet associated with Guo and Steve Bannon, former Breitbart executive and ally of President Trump. The two have formed a partisan alliance to push their shared anti-CCP agenda through the Rule of Law Foundation and the Rule of Law Society, which they founded in October 2017.5 Funded by Guo and managed by Bannon, Rule of Law aims to “protect and assist individuals victimized in China, particularly those penalized for speaking out against injustice.”6 Guo and Bannon were drawn together because both “naturally despise the Chinese Communist Party (CCP),”7 according to Guo. They also both have media backgrounds. Bannon was previously Trump’s chief strategist, and, before that he ran the right-wing news site Breitbart. Guo founded and funds G Media,8 which often posts anti-CCP stories across social media platforms, and prominently on the social media platform, Parler.
Prior to the first Yan report being released, Bannon said Wang’s YouTube episode featuring Yan was shown to and translated for him.9 As doubts about the origins of COVID-19 continued to proliferate across right-wing media networks, Guo and Bannon connected with Yan. This is when the pieces fell into place for what would become the Yan Report media manipulation campaign.
In interviews, Yan had been arguing that both China and the World Health Organization knew about the novel coronavirus earlier than they admitted. This is not a unique claim. Similar narratives, for example, were also circulating using the hashtag #chinaliedpeopledied, which went viral in March and April 2020.10 Yan put forward that she had evidence that the notion that the virus transferred from animals to humans was a “smokescreen” to hide its true origin, which she claims is a lab in Wuhan with close connections to the Chinese Communist Party.11 These claims are unfounded and have been debunked.12
While similar claims had been made by others, Yan stands out due to her background in science. Her CV says she has a medical degree from Xiangya Medical College of Central South University and a PhD from Southern Medical University.13 Prior to joining Bannon and Guo, Yan held a postdoctoral fellowship at Hong Kong University (HKU), where she was the first author on a COVID research paper that was published by Nature — one of the most prestigious biology journals in the world.14
Guo flew Yan to the US on April 28, 2020.15 In her most recent articles, she lists the Rule of Law Foundation and the Rule of Law Society as her formal affiliations.
In late April and early May, President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo fanned the flames of the January rumor that COVID-19 was made in a lab.16 Trump contradicted his own intelligence team by saying he had seen evidence and that he had a “high degree of confidence” that it was created and released in Wuhan.17
On July 10, 2020, Yan traded her story up the chain from online and hyperpartisan news outlets to an interview on Fox News.18 During the interview she said she was in hiding from the Chinese government and referred to herself as a whistleblower, claiming to have worked on human-to-human COVID transmission as early as December 2019.19 Fox, in turn, called her a whistleblower in its article about the interview.20 It is the earliest article labeling her as such.
The interview garnered a lot of attention online with over 2.7 million views on YouTube and 18K reactions on Facebook.21 The YouTube video has since been removed by Facebook according to data from CrowdTangle, a “public insights tool” owned by Facebook.22 The day after this interview, HKU put out a press release refuting what Yan told Fox News about her research.23
Yan continued to ramp up media appearances. On September 9, she repeated her claims to Raheem Kassam, co-host of Bannon’s popular podcast and YouTube show War Room: Pandemic, editor-in-chief of the conservative news site National Pulse and former editor-in-chief of Breitbart London.24 On September 11, Yan told Loose Women, a British talk show, that she would publish the evidence.25 The interview is available on YouTube, and has over 1.4M views.26 Then the New York Post quoted Yan’s interview with Loose Women,27 as did Tech Times (8.8K followers on Twitter),28 the Daily Mail (2.6M followers),29 and Mint (1.9M followers).30
With Yan, Guo and Bannon were able to effectively exploit the active crisis of the coronavirus by spreading her claims about its origins and the wedge issue of mistrust of the CCP. However, reporters were still skeptical of her claims and comments across social media repeatedly clamored for evidence.