A Chinese virologist who claims to have been one of the first to study COVID-19 when it surfaced last year has claimed it was made in a lab and deliberately released by the Chinese government.
Her claims, made in a study funded by a group founded by former Donald Trump advisor Steve Bannon, have been rubbished by other experts as "entirely fictional".
Li-Meng Yan's paper, Unusual Features of the SARS-CoV-2 Genome Suggesting Sophisticated Laboratory Modification Rather Than Natural Evolution and Delineation of Its Probable Synthetic Route, was published online and has not been peer-reviewed.
"The natural origin theory, although widely accepted, lacks substantial support," it reads. "The alternative theory that the virus may have come from a research laboratory is, however, strictly censored in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Nonetheless, SARS-CoV-2 shows biological characteristics that are inconsistent with a naturally occurring, zoonotic virus."
"I work[ed] in the WHO reference lab, which is the top coronavirus lab in the world, in the University of Hong Kong," Dr Yan told Fox News show Tucker Carlson Tonight on Wednesday.
"And the thing is, I get deeply into such investigation in secret from the early beginning of this outbreak... I can tell you, this is created in the lab... and also, it is spread to the world to make such damage."
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The virus behind COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2, was first discovered in China late last year. Numerous international investigations into its source have concluded it shows all the characteristics of evolving in bats before making the jump to humans, perhaps via an intermediate host such as a pangolin.
US President Donald Trump earlier this year said he had evidence the virus was made in a lab, but didn't elaborate what it was.
"I can't tell you that, I'm not allowed to tell you that," Trump said in May.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology is located near the first big outbreak, in the city that bears its name. In April it denied claims the virus was made there, saying it didn't even get its first sample until December 30 - weeks after it was first detected. Reports the institute had an earlier coronavirus with RNA 96 percent the same as SARS-CoV-2 were dismissed too - even just a 4 percent difference would be 1100 changes, and the institute says it only had the RNA code of the earlier virus - not the virus itself.
Dr Yan - who fled China in April - previously made headlines in July when she claimed the Chinese government covered up the virus' threat last year, before informing the World Health Organization at the end of December.
The University of Hong Kong, where Dr Yan said she did early research on the virus that was allegedly suppressed, said this was false.
"Dr Yan never conducted any research on human-to-human transmission of the novel coronavirus at [the University of Hong Kong] during December 2019 and January 2020, her central assertion," the university told Fox News.
The research was published on Zenodo, an open-access online journal. It was funded by the Rule of Law Society and the Rule of Law Foundation, non-profits set up by Bannon and Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui to "expose corruption, obstruction, illegality, brutality, false imprisonment, excessive sentencing, harassment, and inhumanity pervasive in the political, legal, business and financial systems of China".
Bannon shot to fame as head of Breitbart News and chief strategist for Trump during his campaign and early days as President of the US. He is presently facing charges of mail fraud and money laundering after being arrested aboard Wengui's yacht in August.
Wengui was once one of China's richest men, but fled in 2014 after being accused of a range of crimes, including kidnapping and rape. He is a member of Trump's Florida resort Mar-a-Lago. To complicate matters, Wengui has also been accused of being a Chinese spy.
The Rule of Law groups have never published scientific research before. Three other people named as authors of the paper had also no record of prior research.
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"The report cannot be viewed with any credibility," said University of Bath microbial pathogenesis expert Andrew Preston. "The interpretations made are not supported by data, are unsubstantiated and the interpretations are largely stated but not explained."
"This new manuscript is not peer-reviewed, and does not obviously offer any data that overrides previous research," said University of Southampton health researcher Michael Head.
"Basically, it's all circumstantial and some of it is entirely fictional," Columbia University virologist Angela Rasmussen told The Daily Beast.
At least 940,000 people worldwide have been killed in the pandemic to date out of 22.7 million closed cases - a fatality ratio of 4.1 percent. The infection fatality rate remains a mystery, with it unknown at this stage just how many people have actually been infected.