The Republican Party is no stranger to conspiracy theories in the age of Donald Trump, but they aren’t just coming from the president. On Sunday, Tom Cotton, the Republican senator from Arkansas, appeared on Fox News and asked some eyebrow-raising questions about the coronavirus epidemic. He appeared to suggest that the virus had, in fact, been secretly manufactured by the Chinese government in a biochemical lab in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
There is no evidence of this theory, which Cotton himself acknowledged on air.
“We don’t have evidence that this disease originated there,” he said, “but because of China’s duplicity and dishonesty from the beginning, we need to at least ask the question to see what the evidence says, and China right now is not giving evidence on that question at all.”
Though he wasn’t willing to stake any concrete claims about the origin of the virus, he argued that crucial information is still missing. “We don’t know where it originated, and we have to get to the bottom of that,” he said.
Currently, scientists believe that the virus originated in food markets in Wuhan. In an interview with The Washington Post, Rutgers University professor of chemical biology Richard Ebright said that “based on the virus genome and properties there is no indication whatsoever that it was an engineered virus.”
Scientific expertise hasn’t stopped politicians like Cotton and former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon, who take a hawkish approach toward China, including sharing theories that the Chinese government created the virus in a lab as some type of super-weapon. Bannon seems to have been one of the first prominent voices to amplify this particular theory. “Bill Gertz had an amazing piece in The Washington Times about the biological labs that happen to be in Wuhan,” he said on his radio show about the virus (calmly titled called War Room: Pandemic) on Jan. 25, according to The New York Times.
The notion that China might be developing bioweapons feeds into the China hawk narrative that the country needs to be treated as more of a threat by the United States. Bannon has been tied in reports to a site called G News, run by an exiled Chinese billionaire named Guo Wengui, which has repeatedly shared fake news about the coronavirus.
After receiving pushback for spreading the theory, Cotton took to Twitter to walk back his words.
“Let me debunk the debunkers,” he wrote. “@paulina_milla and her 'experts' wrongly jump straight to the claim that the coronavirus is an engineered bioweapon. That’s not what I’ve said.”
Cotton went on to list four potential causes of the virus, ranging from “Natural (still the most likely, but almost certainly not from the Wuhan food market),” to “Deliberate release (very unlikely, but shouldn’t rule out till the evidence is in).”
In today’s media climate, it’s safe to expect conspiracy theories to spread nearly as fast as the coronavirus itself.