Politifact retracts fact-check about lab leak theory

AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

Credit to Twitchy for noticing this before I did. This week Politifact retracted a fact-check it did last year about the lab leak theory of the origin of the coronavirus. The original article, which Politifact has left up for the sake of transparency, opened:


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.

“Give us, for a non-scientific audience, a summary of why you believe this virus came from a lab in Wuhan,” said Fox News host Tucker Carlson during his self-titled primetime show.

Dr. Li-Meng Yan wasted no time.

“I can present solid scientific evidence to our audience that this virus, COVID-19 SARS-CoV-2 virus, actually is not from nature,” she said. “It is a man-made virus created in the lab.”

I wrote about Dr. Li-Meng Yan last September when she made these claims. Like Politifact, I noted that her research was funded by an anti-CCP organization called the Rule of Law Society & Rule of Law Foundation. Politifact concluded:

The genetic structure of the novel coronavirus, which has been shared by thousands of scientists worldwide, rules out the possibility that it was manipulated in a lab. Public health authorities have repeatedly said the virus was not created in a lab. Scientists believe the coronavirus originated in bats before jumping to humans. Experts have publicly rebuked Yan’s paper, and it’s unclear whether it was peer reviewed.

The claim is inaccurate and ridiculous. We rate it Pants on Fire!

But Monday the the site added an Editor’s note at the top of the page which reads:


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.

The retraction is significant as an admission of how the conventional wisdom has shifted in the past few months. Politifact is correct that the lab leak theory is unsupported in the sense that the evidence for it is circumstantial. However, if you follow that link to their current report they actually do acknowledge that the natural transmission theory is also currently unsupported.

So far, there is no hard proof to support either the theory that the virus had natural origins or the theory that it leaked from a lab, said Richard Ebright, a professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Rutgers University, who has frequently been cited by proponents of the lab-leak hypothesis, including Paul.

“At this point in time, all scientific data related to the genome sequence of SARS-CoV-2 and the epidemiology of COVID-19 are equally consistent with a natural-accident origin or a laboratory-accident origin,” he told PolitiFact…

It’s still not obvious that the pandemic began in a wildlife market. An early and massive outbreak of the coronavirus did occur at Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan, which was previously speculated to be the origin site of the pandemic. But a team of investigators from the World Health Organization sent to dig into the pandemic’s origins did not find any animals infected with the coronavirus at a market, and neither have Chinese researchers who have tested tens of thousands of specimens. This means that there’s no proof of animal-to-human transmission at Huanan or at other markets.


But the same article does offer a pretty fair summary of the lab leak theory.

Scientists open to the lab-leak theory have cited three pieces of circumstantial evidence in support of the hypothesis:

The first is simply the site of the outbreak. The city of Wuhan is, according to Ebright, “tens of kilometers from, and outside the flight range of, the nearest known horseshoe bat colonies.” Furthermore, the first cases of the coronavirus occurred in September when cold temperatures drive horseshoe bats into hibernation.

Second, the first outbreak occurred close to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, where researchers studied bat coronaviruses, including the world’s closest relative to SARS-CoV-2. The laboratory searched for horseshoe bat colonies in caves in Yunnan province, and then brought those viruses back to Wuhan, where they were mass-produced, genetically manipulated and studied.

Third, Ebright says, some of the bat-SARS-related coronavirus projects at the Wuhan Institute were conducted at biosafety standards that would pose a potentially high risk of infection if laboratory staff were to come in contact with the virus.

Yesterday Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee released a report suggesting there was “significant circumstantial evidence” to support the lab leak theory. The report seems to reference the three basic points above as well as the claim, which has been circulating for a while, that researchers at the lab came down with a COVID-like illness in the Fall of 2019.


Again, that’s all circumstantial evidence. David Frum had a piece at the Atlantic earlier this week arguing that the effort to Devin Nunes and others isn’t to get to the truth but to politicize the story in a way that allows them to punish those who disagree. Frum’s story is a bit misleading at points in my view but even Frum eventually admits that the lab leak theory deserves some consideration.

Although the Biden administration should defend U.S. scientists against partisan defamation, it has no reason to protect China against the truth, whatever that may be. In April, Biden’s director of national intelligence testified to the Senate that the intelligence community remained open to the two possibilities that the virus “emerged naturally from human contact with infected animals or it was a laboratory accident.” CIA Director William Burns concurred, adding that “the Chinese leadership has not been fully forthcoming or fully transparent.” The only thing that is certain is that these leaders are starting to disbelieve the Chinese story that the virus originated in the Wuhan markets where live animals are sold.

What this comes down to is the fact that more than a year after the worst pandemic in a century, China’s story about where the virus originated has fallen apart and they don’t claim to have a better one. Meanwhile they continue to stifle and control any investigation or even reporting on the topic. It’s still just circumstantial but they certainly behave as if they have something to hide.


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