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• There is no evidence that the coronavirus was made in a lab. The overwhelming consensus among public health experts is that the virus evolved naturally.
Editor’s note, May 17, 2021: When this fact-check was first published in February 2021, PolitiFact’s sources included researchers who asserted the SARS-CoV-2 virus could not have been manipulated. That assertion is now more widely disputed. Read our May 2021 report for more on the origins of the virus that causes COVID-19. That dispute notwithstanding, the claim that COVID-19 was created with research funded by Dr. Anthony Fauci remains False.
More than a year after the coronavirus first arrived in the U.S., conspiracy theories continue to spread about a virology lab in Wuhan, China, which has drawn scrutiny throughout the pandemic for research it conducted on bat viruses.
One new claim about the lab comes from conservative news site WorldNetDaily, which tried to connect Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of infectious diseases at the National Institutes of Health, to the origin of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
"New evidence ties COVID-19 creation to research funded by Fauci," reads the headline.
Despite its promise of "new evidence," the WorldNetDaily article largely resembled other conspiracy theories that we have fact-checked in the past. It was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)
As evidence of its claims, the article cited an investigation by Fox News commentator Steve Hilton, who claims that the coronavirus was created at the Wuhan lab with NIH grant money.
Although the NIH did fund a project at the Wuhan lab, there’s no proof that the coronavirus was bioengineered. Both the WorldNetDaily article and Hilton’s segment rely on a series of unsubstantiated allegations to spin a conspiracy theory about the virus being a lab creation.
WorldNetDaily has since dialed back on many of its claims, issuing three separate corrections, all of which cite scientists pushing back on the notion that SARS-CoV-2 was manmade. It has also placed a question mark at the end of the original headline. However, the bulk of the article text has not been updated.
In 2014, the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, the part of the NIH headed by Fauci, awarded a $3.4 million grant to the New York-based EcoHealth Alliance, which aims to protect people from viruses that jump from species to species. The alliance has projects across 30 countries, including Thailand, Vietnam and China.
The group hired the virology lab in Wuhan to conduct genetic analyses of bat coronaviruses collected in Yunnan province, about 800 miles southwest of Wuhan. EcoHealth Alliance paid the lab $598,500 over five years. The lab had secured approval from both the U.S. State Department and the NIH.
That the NIAID funded the project is not in question. However, the WorldNetDaily article goes further than that, claiming that the grant covered "gain of function" research on a bat coronavirus, which "created" SARS-CoV-2.
Gain-of-function research is a controversial form of study that involves boosting the infectivity and lethality of a pathogen. Proponents of gain-of-function say it helps researchers spot potential threats to human health and allows them to figure out ways to tackle a new virus. Fauci has advocated for gain-of-function research in the past. In a 2011 article he co-wrote for the Washington Post, he promoted it as a means to study influenza viruses.
However, there’s no hard proof to support the article’s claims about gain-of-function research. The overwhelming consensus among public health experts is that the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 evolved naturally.
All parties involved in the grant to the Wuhan Institute of Virology have denied that it involved gain-of-function research.
"We have not ever participated in gain-of-function research. Nor have we ever been funded to participate in gain-of-function research," Robert Kessler with the EcoHealth Alliance told PolitiFact last May.
The NIH told us: "The research supported under the grant to EcoHealth Alliance Inc. characterized the function of newly discovered bat spike proteins and naturally occurring pathogens and did not involve the enhancement of the pathogenicity or transmissibility of the viruses studied."
The grant was approved in May 2014. Five months later, on Oct. 17, the Obama administration announced it would not fund new projects that involved gain-of-function research, citing safety and security risks.
The NIH told us that it reviewed the EcoHealth Alliance project after the funding pause and determined that it did not involve gain-of-function research. As a result, it was not affected by the White House’s new policy.
Hilton and WorldNetDaily do not provide evidence that the grant covered gain-of-function research. When we reached out to Fox News, a spokesperson pointed us to the transcript of Hilton’s segment. Art Moore, the author of the WorldNetDaily article, did not respond to a request for comment.
MIT biologist Kevin Esvelt reviewed a paper that appears to have been published with financial assistance from the grant. According to Esvelt, certain techniques that the researchers used seemed to meet the definition of gain-of-function research. But he told PolitiFact that "the work reported in this specific paper definitely did NOT lead to the creation of SARS-CoV-2" because the genetic sequences of the virus studied in the paper differ from that of the new coronavirus.
If the virus had been altered in a lab, its genomic data would show signs of tampering. Although scientists from around the world have publicly shared the virus’ genetic makeup thousands of times, there’s still no evidence that the virus was bioengineered.
On Feb. 19, 2020, public health experts signed a public statement to "strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin."
"Scientists from multiple countries have published and analysed genomes" of SARS-CoV-2 "and they overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife," the statement reads, citing nine scientific studies.
A detailed computational analysis of the coronavirus conducted by five researchers in March found that its genetic makeup showed no signs of alteration. The ability of the virus to bind to human cells is most likely the result of natural selection in an animal host or in humans after the virus jumped from animals.
"Our analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus," the researchers wrote.
There are unresolved concerns that a protective lapse at the lab could have allowed a natural virus to escape, but there is no hard proof of such a lapse.
WorldNetDaily wrote that "New evidence ties COVID-19 creation to research funded by Fauci."
Both the NIH and EcoHealth Alliance have denied that a grant to the Wuhan lab funded gain-of-function research, though a scientist told us that one paper published with assistance from the grant seems to describe techniques similar to gain-of-function.
This claim is False.
WorldNetDaily, New evidence ties COVID-19 creation to research funded by Fauci, Feb. 1, 2021
The Next Revolution with Steve Hilton, Coronavirus origins: Special investigation - update, Jan. 31, 2021
Email interview with Kevin Esvelt, assistant professor of the MIT Media Lab, Feb. 4, 2021
Email interview with Marc Lipsitch, professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Feb. 4, 2021
PolitiFact, Tucker Carlson guest airs debunked conspiracy theory that COVID-19 was created in a lab, Sep. 16, 2020
PolitiFact, Rudy Giuliani wrong about US policy, grant amount to Wuhan virus lab, May 1, 2020
PolitiFact, Health misinformation site promotes conspiracy about coronavirus, Feb. 10, 2020
PolitiFact, "What we know about the source of the coronavirus pandemic," April 17, 2020
Reuters, "Coronavirus very likely of animal origin, no sign of lab manipulation: WHO," April 21, 2020
Science Alert, "Here's How Scientists Know Coronavirus Wasn't Made in a Lab," July 17, 2020
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, About COVID-19, Sept. 1, 2020
National Geographic, "Fauci: No scientific evidence the coronavirus was made in a Chinese lab," May 4, 2020
Washington Post, A flu virus risk worth taking, Dec. 30, 2011
National Library of Medicine, NCBI SARS-CoV-2 Resources, accessed Feb. 4, 2021
Nature, "The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2," March 17, 2020
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