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Facebook is removing its ban on posts calling the novel coronavirus man-made after several experts pointed out that the theory the virus escaped from a lab – which is short of evidence – cannot be ruled out yet.
The move by the social media giant also comes amidst US President Joe Biden’s order to aides calling for an investigation into the origins of the Covid-19 virus that will answer questions including whether the coronavirus emerged from a laboratory accident.
Biden told reporters on Wednesday that the intelligence community is split between two theories on the origins of the novel coronavirus, and that he has ordered officials to examine “whether it emerged from human contact with an infected animal or from a laboratory accident,” and report within 90 days.
In February, Facebook had noted it was expanding the list of posts with misleading health information it would remove from its platforms to include those claiming that “Covid-19 is man-made or manufactured.”
But with renewed interest in probing the origins of the virus, including reports that three scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China were hospitalised in late 2019 with Covid-like symptoms, the social media giant is revisiting its guidelines.
“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 spokesperson told Politico.
“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,” the spokesperson said.
The events have unfolded since a group of 18 researchers published a letter in the journal Science calling for the lab-leak theory to be explored more deeply.
However, some virologists and experts say there is still not enough strong support for this notion.
In the first phase of investigation into the origins of Covid sponsored by the WHO, investigators mapped a large market in Wuhan, China, and said most samples of the coronavirus recovered here were found around stalls that sold animals.
Previous outbreaks of emerging infectious diseases such as Zika and Ebola have begun spillover from wildlife, and studies analysing genome samples of the virus across animals also hint at an origin of the novel coronavirus from horseshoe bats before spreading to humans via an unknown intermediary animal.
Citing the data reported in the WHO’s report, David Relman, a microbiologist at Stanford University in California, told Nature that the investigators should have concluded they didn’t have enough information to conclude about a leak instead of observing that the natural-origins hypothesis was “highly likely.”
However, others like virologist Angela Rasmussen from the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon in Canada, say authors of the Science letter should have thought more about its impact on the divisive political environment surrounding this issue even if it was well intentioned.
“At this point the origins debate has become a toxic milieu dominated by opportunists, dilettantes, racist/misogynist..and trolls,” Rasmussen tweeted.
With Facebook’s move being the first instance of a social media giant revisiting how it dealt with posts on the Wuhan lab-leak theory, it remains to be seen how other platforms including Twitter and YouTube react to the new developments.