The origins of COVID-19 remain hazy. Three years after the start of the pandemic, it is still unclear whether the coronavirus that causes the disease leaked from a lab or spread to humans from an animal.
This much is known: When it comes to misinformation about COVID-19, each new report on the origins of the virus quickly leads to a backlash and a return of misleading claims about the virus, vaccines and masks that have reverberated since the start of the pandemic .
It happened again this week after the U.S. Department of Energy confirmed that a secret low-confidence report determined the virus had escaped from a lab. Within hours, online mentions of conspiracy theories related to COVID-19 began to mount, with many commentators saying the classified report was proof they were right all along.
The Energy Department report is far from definitive, but it is the latest of many attempts by scientists and officials to trace the origins of the virus, which has now killed nearly seven million people after it was first discovered in late 2019 in the central Chinese city of Wuhan.
The report has not been made public, and officials in Washington stressed that several US agencies disagree on its origins. On Tuesday, FBI Director Christopher Wray told Fox News that the FBI has determined “for quite some time” that the origin of the pandemic is “most likely a possible lab incident in Wuhan.”
But others in the US intelligence community disagree, and there is no consensus. Many scientists believe the most likely explanation is that the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 jumped from animals to humans, possibly in Wuhan’s Huanan market, a scenario supported by multiple studies and reports. The World Health Organization has said that while an animal origin remains the most likely, the possibility of a lab leak needs further investigation before it can be ruled out.
According to virologist Angela Rasmussen, people should be open-minded about the evidence used in the Department of Energy’s assessment. But she said without evaluating the evidence in the classified report, there is no reason to question the conclusion that the virus spread naturally.
“We can and will know what the scientific evidence shows,” Rasmussen tweeted Tuesday. “The available evidence still shows the emergence of zoonoses in the Huanan market.”
However, many of those citing the report as evidence seemed uninterested in the evidence. They seized on the report saying it suggests the experts were also wrong when it came to masks and vaccines.
Was COVID-19 made in a lab in Wuhan?
“School closures were a failed and catastrophic policy. Masks are ineffective. And harmful,” said a tweet that has been read nearly 300,000 times since Sunday. “COVID came from a lab. Everything we skeptics said was true.”
The overall number of mentions of COVID-19 began to climb after The Wall Street Journal ran a story on the Energy Department’s report on Sunday. Since then, mentions of various COVID-related conspiracy theories have skyrocketed, according to an analysis conducted by Zignal Labs, a San Francisco-based media intelligence firm, and shared with The Associated Press.
While the theory of the lab leak has bounced around the internet since the start of the pandemic, references to it rose 100,000 percent in the 48 hours after the Energy Department report was revealed, according to Zignal’s analysis, which has been shared by social media, blogs and other sites.
Many of the conspiracy theories contradict each other and the findings in the Energy Department report. In a tweet on Tuesday, US Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican from Georgia, called COVID-19 a “man-made bioweapon from China.” A follower was quick to challenge her: “It’s made in Ukraine,” he replied.
With so many questions about a world event that has claimed so many lives and upended even more, it is not at all surprising that COVID-19 is still able to generate so much anger and misinformation, said Bret Schafer, a senior fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a Washington, DC-based organization that has tracked government propaganda about COVID-19.
“The pandemic has been so incredibly disruptive for everyone. The intensity of feelings about COVID, I don’t think that will go away,” Schafer said. “And every time something new comes up, it breathes new life into these grievances and frustrations, real or imagined.”
Chinese government officials have historically used their social media accounts to bolster anti-US conspiracy theories, including some that suggested the US created the COVID-19 virus and framed its release in China.
So far, they’ve taken a quieter approach to the Energy Department’s report. In their official response, the Chinese government dismissed the agency’s assessment as an attempt to politicize the pandemic. Online, Beijing’s sprawling propaganda and disinformation network was largely silent, with only a few posts criticizing or mocking the report.
“BREAKING,” one pro-Chinese YouTuber wrote on Twitter. “I can now announce with ‘little confidence’ that the COVID pandemic started as a leak from Hunter Biden’s laptop,” referring to a controversy surrounding a computer left in a repair shop by the US president’s son.