FactCheck Social Media

US scientist was not arrested for selling coronavirus to China

2020-04-21 16:18:37

The Statement

Claims that COVID-19 is a man-made virus continue to appear on social media, with a Facebook post seeking to lay the blame on a United States academic.

The April 4 post from a Facebook user in East Timor, features a TV news report on the arrest of a Harvard University professor. The post’s caption reads: “American Intelligence has just discovered the man who manufactured and sold the Corona virus to China”.

The video has been viewed more than 34,000 times and shared more than 360 times.

A Facebook post from April 4, 2020
 A Facebook post from April 4 alleges that a US scientist sold “Corona virus to China”. 

The Analysis

The Facebook post from April 4 suggests its information is new, however the video is of a US Justice Department press conference held in Boston on January 28 to announce the arrest of Dr Charles Lieber, chair of the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Harvard University, on charges of aiding the People’s Republic of China. The video is from a TV news report by Boston-based WCVB-TV, which the broadcaster posted on its website on the same day of the arrest.

Lieber’s arrest received significant media coverage around the world, but no mention was made of coronavirus in the initial news reports. At the press conference, US Attorney for the Massachusetts district, Andrew Lelling, explained  that the charges related to the Department of Justice’s ongoing investigations into Chinese economic espionage and research. As well as Lieber’s case, Lelling also outlined charges laid against two Chinese nationals in unrelated investigations.

The only apparent link between the Lieber case and the coronavirus crisis is that the charges against the US scientist relate to his relationship with the Wuhan University of Technology (WUT). The first coronavirus cases originated in the Chinese city.

According to a statement issued by the Department of Justice (DoJ), Lieber – who is also the Principal Investigator of the Lieber Research Group at Harvard University – has been charged with making a “materially false, fictitious and fraudulent statement” in relation to his work with WUT. The DoJ allege that in 2011, unbeknown to Harvard, Lieber became a ‘Strategic Scientist’ at WUT and later became a contractual participant in The Thousand Talents Plan, a Chinese government program aimed at recruiting leading international scientists and researchers.

The DoJ allege that under the terms of that contract, WUT paid Lieber $US50,000 per month, plus living expenses of up to 1,000,000 Chinese Yuan (approximately $US158,000 at the time). He was also allegedly paid more than $1.5 million to establish a research lab at the university.

Although Lieber’s work crosses a number of scientific fields, he works mainly in nanoscience, which involves the study of ultra small structures and materials. According to his Harvard profile, Lieber has pioneered the synthesis of a broad range of nanoscale materials and has been a leader in demonstrating their applications in areas ranging from electronics and computing to biology and medicine.

Lieber’s CV states he has published more than 400 papers in peer reviewed journals. A 2004 paper titled, ‘Electrical detection of single viruses’, explored the use of nanowires to speed up the detection of viruses, according to an article in the Harvard Gazette.

“Viruses are among the most important causes of human disease and are of increasing concern as agents for bioterrorism,” Lieber says in the article. “Our work shows that nanoscale silicon wires can be configured as detectors that turn on or off in the presence of a single virus particle. Such detectors could be fashioned into arrays capable of sensing thousands of different viruses, ushering in a new era for diagnoses, biosafety, and quick response to viral outbreaks.”

As to the origin of COVID-19, the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have found no evidence linking the virus to a laboratory, yet the theory continues to be aired by politicians such as US President Donld Trump.

Lieber’s arrest in January prompted swift social media speculation that he was somehow connected to the COVID-19 outbreak. Those claims have been debunked by organisations such as Snopes, FactCheck.org, Reuters and WCVB-TV, the source of the post’s video.

Harvard University professor Charles Lieber

 

 Dr Charles Lieber works mainly in nanoscience, which involves the study of ultra small materials. 

The Verdict

Based on the evidence, AAP FactCheck found the Facebook post to be false. Dr Charles Lieber was arrested in January by US authorities for “making a materially false, fictitious and fraudulent statement” on funds he received from Wuhan University of Technology and over his alleged links to a Chinese government program. Lieber was not arrested for manufacturing or selling coronavirus.

False – The primary claim of the content is factually inaccurate.

* AAP FactCheck is accredited by the Poynter Institute’s International Fact-Checking Network, which promotes best practice through a stringent and transparent Code of Principles. https://aap.com.au/