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PolitiFact Quietly Retracts ‘Pants On Fire’ Lab Leak Fact Check

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  • PolitiFact quietly retracted a fact check from September 2020 on Monday that called a Hong Kong virologist’s claim that COVID-19 was a lab-created virus a “debunked conspiracy theory.”
  • “The claim is inaccurate and ridiculous. We rate it Pants on Fire!” the now-retracted fact check stated.
  • A PolitiFact editor’s note appended to an archived version of the fact check stated that the statements from scientists who asserted that the virus that causes COVID-19 could not have been manipulated is “now more widely disputed.”

PolitiFact retracted a fact check from September 2020 on Monday that had stated a Hong Kong virologist was pushing a “debunked conspiracy theory” when she said on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show that COVID-19 was a lab-created virus.

Virologist and former University of Hong Kong postdoctoral fellow Dr. Li-Meng Yan had claimed on Carlson’s show that not only was COVID-19 a man-made virus created in a Wuhan lab, but it was also released intentionally into the human population by the Chinese government.

“The claim is inaccurate and ridiculous. We rate it Pants on Fire!” PolitiFact’s now-retracted fact check stated.

The retracted fact check stated that Facebook posts that contained the comments Yan made on Carlson’s show had been flagged as part of the social media network’s efforts to curb fake news and misinformation.

PolitiFact uploaded a copy of the retracted fact check to its archive with an editor’s note explaining why it removed it from its website.

“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 editor’s note stated. “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 editor’s note added.

PolitiFact’s fact check had linked to a statement published in the journal Nature Medicine in March 2020 by a group of five virologists who argued that the virus that causes COVID-19 exhibited no signs of purposeful laboratory manipulation.

Longtime New York Times science reporter Nicholas Wade wrote in May that despite the Nature Medicine statement being “full of absurdly large holes” and “grounded in nothing but two inconclusive speculations,” it successfully “convinced the world’s press that SARS2 could not have escaped from a lab.”

PolitiFact retracted its fact check on Yan after it published a lengthy piece on Monday on the origins of COVID-19 that acknowledged that some virologists, such as Rutgers University professor Richard Ebright, say that available scientific evidence supports both a natural origin or a lab accident origin.

The story also acknowledged that some scientists contend that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was conducting risky gain-of-function experiments on bat-based coronaviruses and that the research was funded in part by a National Institutes of Health subgrant to the lab through the nonprofit group EcoHealth Alliance.

PolitiFact Editor in Chief Angie Holan declined to offer additional comment.

Despite retracting its fact check on Yan, a PolitiFact fact check on Pennsylvania Rep. Scott Perry, who made a similar claim in October that COVID-19 was “constructed” in a Wuhan lab, remains live on its website.

An editor’s note was added to the Perry fact check on Thursday after the Daily Caller News Foundation contacted the outlet for comment that acknowledges it is “now more widely disputed” that the virus that causes COVID-19 could not have been manipulated, but added that Perry’s claim that the virus was constructed remains false.

However, the body of PolitiFact’s fact check on Perry continues to state that there is no evidence that the virus was altered in a lab.

“Scientists worldwide have publicly shared the genetic makeup of the coronavirus thousands of times,” the fact check states. “If the virus had been altered in a lab, there would be evidence in its genome. But there isn’t.”

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