Fact-checkers prematurely declare Wuhan COVID-19 lab leak theory false

Several different fact-checking sources declared the theory that the COVID-19 coronavirus escaped from a Chinese virology lab to be false and a conspiracy theory lacking any legitimate factual basis.

Fact-checkers that declare as false items of ongoing scientific debate are not providing an honest fact-checking service.

Summary of fact-checking outlets who declared the lab outbreak theory false (this may not be an exhaustive list)

  • In May of 2020, PolitiFact declared in a definitive manner, “No, the novel coronavirus was not ‘man-made'”
  • In September of 2020, PolitiFact wrote Fox News host Tucker Carlson hosted a guest on his show who repeated the “debunked conspiracy theory that COVID-19 was created in a lab.”
  • In February and September of 2020, Factcheck.org declared the theory that COVID-19 was bioengineered to be “baseless.”
  • In September of 2020, the Associated Press said the claim COVID-19 is a man-made virus intentionally manufactured in a lab and released to the public” is “false.” The Associated Press reported “Scientists say the molecular structure of SARS-CoV-2 rules out the possibility that the virus was created in a lab.”
  • In February of 2020, the Washington Post reported Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) ”

    keeps repeating a coronavirus conspiracy theory that was already debunked.”  MSNBC, referring to the same issue, wrote, “Cotton repeats coronavirus conspiracy theory, despite evidence.” The New York Times also described Cotton as having repeated a “fringe theory.”

  • In March of 2020, USA Today’s fact-checking team declared, “One of the most prominent examples of false information about the virus is an article published in January by the right-leaning Washington Times that claims the coronavirus may have originated in a research laboratory in Wuhan, China” and ruled the claim “False.” USA Today updated its article in February of 2021 ruling the claim to COVID-19 originated in a Chinese lab “partly false.”  USA Today maintained the “partly false” rating based on the assertion “Suggestions that the novel coronavirus was engineered for use in bioweapons in a high-security biomedical laboratory in Wuhan, China, were debunked” a semantic note irrelevant to the topline claim, that COVID-19 may have originated from a Chinese lab. An editor’s note in the since-updated USA Today article notes it has been updated, and the passage saying the Washington Times repeated “one of the most prominent examples of false information about the virus” is missing, but USA Today’s update note contains no apology to the Washington Times for initially declaring its reporting as false.
  • As of May of 2021, growing evidence supports the idea that COVID-19 originated in a Wuhan lab. Even without the emergence of this new evidence, these fact-checkers never had the definitive scientific evidence to declare the claims as false.

Within the first year of COVID-19’s origin, when many details about the virus remained unclear, yet some of the most prominent fact-checking outlets and news publications declared the possibility that COVID-19 originated from the Wuhan lab as false.

Early on, China was not granting access to international investigators to study the origins of the virus outbreak. China only began granting access to the World Health Organization (WHO) to enter Wuhan and study the virus origins in February of 2021. Even after China granted a WHO team access to Wuhan, the BBC reported a member of the WHO team said China still refused to hand over certain key data. Given the early and still ongoing limitations to access of key data about the origins of COVID-19, early efforts to independently corroborate its exact origin were not sufficient to simply declare an entire theory of origin as false.

Often times, subjects of ongoing scientific study cannot simply be “fact-checked” and definitively written off.

In the months since these fact-checkers variously declared the lab outbreak theory false, a “fringe theory,” a “debunked theory” and a “conspiracy theory,” prominent U.S. scientists have lent new support to the lab outbreak theory. In March, former Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Robert Redfield declared his belief COVID-19 originated in a lab. Dr. Anthony Fauci also said in a May 2021 Senate hearing said the possibility COVID-19 originated from a lab “certainly exists, and I am totally in favor of a full investigation of whether that could have happened.”

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