Facebook won’t remove posts claiming that COVID-19 in “man-made”, but is that the right decision?

There have been speculations that the COVID-19 virus accidentally leaked from a Chinese laboratory. This comes especially as scientists are revisiting the origins of the virus—and Facebook says that they won’t remove claims that COVID-19 was man-made anymore.

“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. 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,” a Facebook spokesperson noted.

How did it start?

U.S. President Joe Biden called to re-examine the origins of COVID-19 after U.S. intelligence agencies are pursuing rival theories, potentially including the possibility of a laboratory accident in China. Biden’s push, however, is intended to mine information from American allies and their intelligence agencies—like intercepts, witnesses or biological evidence. But it could also include finding out whether the Chinese government covered up an accidental leak.

According to Reuters, some scientists say that the release of a dangerous pathogen via a careless lab worker is a plausible hypothesis for how the pandemic started. The Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV)—China’s leading SARS research facility—is not far from the Huanan Seafood Market, which was the site of the first known COVID-19 superspreader event.

More than a year ago, the Trump administration tried to uncover the origins of the virus. However, officials were wary that Trump’s motives were either to deflect blame from his administration or to punish China.

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According to current U.S. officials, the goal of the new intelligence push is to “improve preparations for future pandemics” and to “leave open the possibility of future cooperation with China”. Biden also said that intelligence agencies believed the virus most likely occurred naturally—and not an accidental lab leak.

Could COVID-19 have been man-made?

The hypothesis of a careless lab worker in Wuhan is a plausible possibility, but that’s really all there is to it—a plausible hypothesis. However, some scientists also believe a natural origin is more likely, and have not seen any scientific evidence to support the more dramatic lab leak theory. 

The scientists who do favour the natural origins of the virus have largely relied on history. Some of the most lethal new diseases of the past century have been traced to human interactions with wildlife and domestic animals—including the first SARS epidemic, MERS-CoV, Ebola and Nipah virus.

Is Facebook making the right decision in not stopping the spread of the man-made COVID-19 theory?

Facebook has recently announced that they are taking more action against people who repeatedly share misinformation on the platform, and its policy also mandates that “false claims and conspiracy theories about the virus” would be removed. But in light of the possibility that COVID-19 might have man-made, the company has altered its policy.

There is currently no confirmation if COVID-19 is an accidental lab leak. Most in the the U.S. intelligence community also believe that there isn’t enough evidence to determine is the scenario is more likely.

The theory of COVID-19 being man-made—as it is still unconfirmed—should still be considered as a conspiracy theory until proven. But as it currently rides on the thin line between conspiracy and scientific findings, it should not be something decided by Facebook.

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There’s also a worry that the renewed interest and discussion of the “lab leak” theory has raised concerns about anti-Asian hate. And anti-Asian violence in the U.S. has been on the rise lately.

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Dzamira Dzafri