Facebook lifts ban on posts claiming COVID-19 was man-made, amid revitalized origins debate

President Joe Biden asked for a new look into the origins on Wednesday.

May 26, 2021, 11:06 PM

Facebook will no longer remove posts that claim COVID-19 was man-made in recognition of the reignited debate about the virus's origins, a company spokesperson told ABC News.

"In light of ongoing investigations into the origin of COVID-19 and in consultation with public health experts, we will no longer remove the claim that COVID-19 is man-made from our apps," a Facebook company spokesperson said in a statement. "We're continuing to work with health experts to keep pace with the evolving nature of the pandemic and regularly update our policies as new facts and trends emerge."

Facebook's shift in policy Wednesday marks a notable reversal of what was a recent add to their list of misleading health claims.

In February, Facebook announced that it had expanded the list of "false claims" it would remove from its platforms to include "additional debunked" statements about COVID-19 -- including that COVID is "man-made or manufactured."

Facebook has made changes to its policies around misleading COVID-19 information throughout the course of the pandemic, in consultation with "leading health organizations, including the World Health Organization (WHO)," the company said.

The claim that COVID-19 was man-made has circled almost since the beginning of the pandemic, focusing on China's Wuhan Institute of Virology, in the city where the outbreak was first detected. The claims that the virus came from the lab was one often pushed by former President Donald Trump, though he never provided evidence.

While claims that the virus was man-made are not necessarily the same as it coming from the lab, officials appear to be leaning toward investigating the origins further and are open to more scrutiny on the lab theory. That theory garnered more attention this week when The Wall Street Journal reported on a U.S. intelligence report citing researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology were hospitalized with an unspecified illness in November 2019. ABC News has not independently confirmed that intelligence report.

President Joe Biden said Wednesday he was ordering U.S. intelligence agencies to "redouble their efforts" to investigate the origins of COVID-19, including "specific questions for China." He has asked for a new report to be filed in 90 days looking further into the origins of the virus that has killed at least 590,000 Americans and nearly 3.5 million people worldwide.

The Facebook application is seen on a phone screen Aug. 3, 2017.
Thomas White/Reuters, FILE

"As of today, the U.S. Intelligence Community has 'coalesced around two likely scenarios' but has not reached a definitive conclusion on this question," Biden said in a statement. "Here is their current position: 'while two elements in the IC leans toward the former scenario and one leans more toward the latter -- each with low or moderate confidence -- the majority of elements do not believe there is sufficient information to assess one to be more likely than the other.'"

The World Health Organization issued a report on the origins of COVID-19 in late March that said the pandemic was likely started through animal to human transmission. The investigators, who spent nearly a month in China, ruled that a lab accident was "extremely unlikely."

It was the only one of the four scenarios that the team did not recommend scientists investigate further.

However, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the WHO, said at the time that further investigation was needed in general as to the virus's origin and further data would be needed. There has been international criticism about the lack of access provided by China to WHO in its investigation.

In a statement issued Wednesday night by the Chinese Embassy in the U.S., a spokesperson called the idea of a lab leak a "conspiracy theory" and said "some political forces have been fixated on political manipulation and blame game."

"To politicize origin tracing, a matter of science, will not only make it hard to find the origin of the virus, but give free rein to the 'political virus' and seriously hamper international cooperation on the pandemic," the spokesperson said. "Out of a sense of responsibility towards the health of mankind, we support a comprehensive study of all early cases of COVID-19 found worldwide and a thorough investigation into some secretive bases and biological laboratories all over the world. Such study and investigation shall be full, transparent and evidence-based, and shall get to the bottom to make everything clear."

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was asked whether he believed COVID-19 was a "natural occurrence" at a Senate hearing on Wednesday.

"I still believe that the most likely scenario was that this was a natural occurrence, but no one knows that 100% for sure," Fauci said. "And since there’s a lot of concern, a lot of speculation, and since no one absolutely knows that, I believe we do need the kind of investigation where there’s open transparency and all the information that’s available to be made available to scrutinize."

ABC News' Mark Osborne, Conor Finnegan and Erin Schumaker contributed to this report.

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