PolitiFact has quietly retracted a September 2020 fact check that labeled a Hong Kong virologist’s claim that COVID-19 originated in a lab as inaccurate and a “debunked conspiracy theory.”
“The claim is inaccurate and ridiculous,” the now-archived fact check previously said. “We rate it Pants on Fire!”
In an updated editor’s note published on May 24, PolitiFact explained why it has now removed the label.
“When this fact-check was first published in September 2020, PolitiFact’s sources included researchers who asserted the SARS-CoV-2 virus could not have been manipulated. That assertion is now more widely disputed,” the note states. “For that reason, we are removing this fact-check from our database pending a more thorough review. Currently, we consider the claim to be unsupported by evidence and in dispute.”
The original fact check from PolitiFact cited a Sept. 15, 2020, Fox News interview with Hong Kong virologist Yan Limeng, in which she said she has “solid scientific evidence” that COVID-19, the disease caused by the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus, is “not from nature.”
“It is a man-made virus created in the lab,” the virologist and former postdoctoral fellow at the University of Hong Kong told the news network at the time.
She also claimed in the interview that the virus was intentionally released by the Chinese regime, without elaborating. Yan said the virus’s genome indicates that it was modified.
“In a Sept. 15 interview, the most-watched program on cable network television aired a conspiracy theory that has been debunked since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic,” PolitiFact’s fact check said of the virologist’s claims.
Social media sites such as Facebook and Instagram, which partner with PolitiFact, flagged posts containing Yan’s claims as false.
The quiet retraction comes as Republican members of the House Intelligence Committee say they believe it to be more likely that the CCP virus originated within a Chinese laboratory than from an animal.
“There is overwhelming circumstantial evidence … to support a lab leak as the origination of COVID-19,” stated a May 19 committee report, which was led by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the ranking member on the committee. “By contrast, little circumstantial evidence has emerged to support the PRC’s [People’s Republic of China] claim that COVID-19 was a natural occurrence, having jumped from some other species to humans.”
COVID-19 first appeared in China’s central city of Wuhan in late 2019, when a cluster of cases was linked to a local wet market. More than a year later, the origins of the virus remain unknown, though the focus has now shifted toward the theory that the virus was leaked from a laboratory at China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). Such a leaked virus could either be a naturally occurring virus or one that had been manipulated in the laboratory.
WIV is home to China’s only P4 lab—the highest level of biosafety—and it’s located not far from the city’s wet market. A State Department fact sheet released in January stated that the WIV had been conducting experiments on bat coronavirus starting at least as far back as 2016. The institute also carried out “laboratory animal experiments” for the Chinese military since at least 2017.
More importantly, the department stated that it had reason to believe that “several researchers inside the WIV became sick in autumn 2019, before the first identified case of the outbreak, with symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illnesses.”
The Chinese regime has denied that the virus’s origin is linked to the WIV and has pushed a natural zoonotic hypothesis—that the virus was transmitted to humans from an animal host. However, Beijing has so far failed to identify the original animal species that allegedly passed the virus on to humans.
According to the report, Beijing tested more than 80,000 animals and still couldn’t identify the original species.
PolitiFact didn’t respond to requests for comment by press time.
In December 2020, the fact-checking website named COVID-19 disinformation, including the claim that the virus was manipulated in a lab, as the “lie of the year.”
Frank Fang contributed to this report.