Eight months after the fact, PolitiFact has been forced to walk back a fact check on a claim made on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show related to the origins of SARS-CoV-2.
Earlier this week, Tom Kertscher and Noah Kim wrote an overview for PolitiFact “debating the origins of the COVID-19 virus.” “Scientists who have studied the coronavirus have generally concluded that it resembles naturally occurring viruses,” PolitiFact explained in their summary of the piece. “But researchers are paying more attention to the possibility that the virus somehow leaked from the lab, though there’s still nothing conclusive.”
In the report, PolitiFact acknowledged that “much uncertainty remains about the origins of COVID-19.” The site provides four “fairly nuanced” points explaining that we do not know where COVID-19 originated, insinuating that there are multiple plausible causes, including a leak from a Wuhan lab.
- SARS-CoV-2 was first noticed in Wuhan, close to a lab where bat coronaviruses were being studied and far from the location where naturally occurring relatives of the virus were found. However, there are other plausible explanations of how the virus could have made its way to Wuhan besides a lab leak.
- Researchers at the Wuhan lab used reverse genetics on bat coronaviruses to create viruses not found in nature. Some of this research was funded by a grant provided by the National Institutes of Health. However, there’s no evidence that this research led to the creation of SARS-CoV-2.
- Scientists who have studied the coronavirus have generally concluded that it resembles naturally occurring viruses. However, we can’t completely rule out that the virus was somehow manipulated. Some extremely competent forms of gain-of-function research don’t leave signatures or telltale signs of manipulation.
- The early outbreak of the coronavirus was linked to various wildlife markets, which lends support to the claim that the virus jumped from animals to humans. However, scientists haven’t yet identified an intermediate host animal that could have incubated the virus before it jumped to humans.
This represents a drastic shift in approach to the Wuhan lab theory compared to PolitiFact’s premature, repeated dismissal of it last year. For example, in a now-archived fact-check from September 2020, PolitiFact claimed that a Tucker Carlson segment included a “debunked conspiracy theory that COVID-19 was created in a lab.”
In the fact-check from September 16, 2020, Daniel Funke wrote for PolitiFact that “scientists say the coronavirus emerged from bats and later jumped to humans,” and that the genetic structure of the novel coronavirus “rules out laboratory manipulation.” PolitiFact stressed at the time that “public health authorities have repeatedly said the coronavirus was not derived from a lab.”
Referencing comments on Carlson’s show by Dr. Li-Meng Yan, “a virologist and former postdoctoral fellow at the University of Hong Kong,” PolitiFact rejected her claims as “a conspiracy theory that has been debunked since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.”
What were Dr. Li-Meng Yan’s comments? “I can present solid scientific evidence to our audience that this virus, COVID-19 SARS-CoV-2 virus, actually is not from nature. It is a man-made virus created in the lab.”
“The claim is inaccurate and ridiculous,” the fact checker declared. “We rate it Pants on Fire!”
PolitiFact used this same logic to “debunk” multiple similar claims.
In October 26, 2020, Tom Kertscher — one of the authors of PolitiFact’s latest article, which effectively debunks their own debunking — rejected Rep. Scott Perry’s comments that COVID-19 “in my opinion, was constructed in the Wuhan Institute of Virology and then was spread around the world, either by accident or on purpose” as “False” on Politifact’s “Truth-O-Meter.”
On May 21, 2020, PolitiFact’s Kiannah Sepeda-Miller rated Illinois’ Senate Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford’s claim that COVID-19 is “man-made” as “false.” Sepeda-Miller argued that “research shows the genetic features of the virus rule out the possibility it was created or manipulated in a lab.”
Funke rated NaturalNews.com’s claim that “the coronavirus was engineered by scientists in a lab” as “false” as early as February 10, 2020.
These fact checks are still published but have been amended with an editor’s note. For example, the archived “Pants-on-Fire” fact-check referenced earlier is now preceded by:
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. 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 in its entirety is preserved below for transparency and archival purposes. Read our May 2021 report for more on the origins of the virus that causes COVID-19.
It is currently unclear how many similar posts related to the now-plausible origins of COVID-19 were removed or suppressed based on these forms of now-archived fact-checks.