A Republican running for the U.S. Senate in New Hampshire has repeatedly claimed China likely created the novel coronavirus in a laboratory ― a theory widely rejected by scientists and also pushed by pro-Kremlin voices seeking to sow discord.
Donald Bolduc, a retired U.S. Army brigadier general and the former commander of American Special Operations Forces in Africa, is running to unseat Democratic incumbent Sen. Jeanne Shaheen in November.
Like Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who endorsed him in January, Bolduc has been telling reporters that he believes the virus was potentially engineered in a Chinese lab as a biological warfare experiment.
“It’s China’s fault,” Bolduc said Tuesday during an interview with “Gun Shop Guys,” a local New Hampshire podcast. “They started this shit and they weren’t transparent about it. And they probably created it in a lab. And now we’re stuck with it. And the whole world is stuck with it.”
He expanded on his theory during an interview with WMUR on Thursday, claiming the virus was an attempt at population control that was designed to have “a fatal effect on our older generation.”
“China created this worldwide epidemic,” he told WMUR. The virus was “probably a biological program they put together and it got beyond their ability to contain.”
Bolduc that day also retweeted Twitter user @AngelWarrior321, an anonymous, pro-Trump account that has shared sexist, racist and Islamophobic content targeting Democrats. The tweet claimed the virus was “not designed just to kill us” but to also “destabilize the West’s economy” because “China wants to rule the world.”
Asked about the retweet Monday, Josh McElveen, senior adviser to Bolduc’s campaign, told HuffPost the tweet was shared in error and would be removed.
“As much as we’d like to have a zero defect environment, an unintended retweet occurred during an audit of social media accounts,” McElveen said in a statement.
Bolduc reiterated his lab theory in a phone interview with HuffPost on Monday. He said he’s not a scientist, but he has a hunch that is based on his military experience as well as reports that are available to the public.
“I would not take off the table the possibility of it being a lab-created virus that was either accidentally leaked due to carelessness,” Bolduc said, “or at worst ― at worst ― intentionally released to see what the effects would be and it just got out of control.”
He later added: “I am not on the fence about it. I’m pretty much convinced in my own mind based off of the way China has reacted inside of China and outside of China that this was created in a lab and they’re trying to cover their tracks.”
He said the U.S. should hold the Chinese government accountable “economically” and “politically” once the virus is under control and if it’s determined it came from a lab.
Both Cotton and Bolduc have noted that the place where the virus was first detected, the Chinese city of Wuhan, is home to the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory, which researches dangerous pathogens.
But the claim that China engineered the virus in a lab has been dismissed by scientists. The genome sequence of the virus suggests it is natural and was likely transmitted from a bat, possibly via another animal, to humans.
“There’s absolutely nothing in the genome sequence of this virus that indicates the virus was engineered,” Richard Ebright, a professor of chemical biology at Rutgers University, told The Washington Post. “The possibility this was a deliberately released bioweapon can be firmly excluded.”
Vipin Narang, an associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told the Post that there’s no evidence that a lab accident caused the general population to be exposed to the virus, calling the scenario “highly unlikely.”
Bolduc told HuffPost he’s seen reports from scientists debunking the lab claim but said he’s also read “the same number of reports coming from inside China and other places that say the opposite.” Asked to specify which reports Bolduc was referring to, McElveen sent HuffPost two links: one to a thinly sourced Asia Times report and another to an entry on the right-wing blog American Thinker.
“I have read those reports and not being a scientist and a biochemist and all these people involved in this stuff, I certainly read them and I look at them and I say to myself, ‘OK, these are experts and this is great,’” Bolduc told HuffPost.
“I’m also reading the same number of reports coming from inside China and other places that say the opposite,” he continued. “This could be something that came from animals inside a lab, in my opinion, that got away from them.”
“I do not discuss science,” he added. “I am not an expert. And I hope that they’re right. However ... we have to leave all options on the table to include the analysis of the experts who say no. I get it. I’m not a knucklehead.”
Bolduc, Cotton and conservative bloggers aren’t the only people accusing the Chinese government of either intentionally or unintentionally exposing the general population to the virus.
The European Union External Action Service’s East StratCom, a task force that monitors Russia’s ongoing disinformation campaigns, reported last week that pro-Kremlin trolls were pushing the same theory to “sow distrust and division.”
The group said the Russian government wasn’t authoring fake news articles, but was amplifying the false theories peddled by other organizations, including American far-right groups, reported Politico.
Asked if he’s concerned that his lab theory echoed Russian disinformation efforts, Bolduc said his views have “nothing to do with those reports.”
“I don’t take this lightly,” Bolduc told HuffPost. “I’m trying to be responsible about it. I’m not trying to create an issue where one doesn’t exist. But I firmly believe that this option should be on the table just like every other option is on the table.”
“If it is something that was irresponsibly released due to something developed in a lab, great. If it’s not, great,” he added. “Let’s just know where it came from so we can contain it.”
Bolduc has said he has the backing of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which has not yet officially endorsed a candidate in the New Hampshire primary race. The NRSC did not immediately respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.
Cotton was slated to campaign for Bolduc and headline a Republican fundraiser in New Hampshire in May. His office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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