- - Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Over a year ago, I reported in this newspaper that the Wuhan Institute of Virology has links to the Chinese military and was being eyed as a potential source of the coronavirus pandemic. As of today, every word of my story has been confirmed.

When the story was first published, however, Facebook and one of its “fact-checkers” in the media immediately sprang into action to silence my story and scrub the Internet of any reference to it. They labeled it as “false” and dismissed it as a “conspiracy theory.”

A year later, Facebook and its “fact-checker,” USA Today, acknowledge my report was entirely accurate. Yet — inexplicably — they still label the questions raised in my story about the Wuhan lab as “partly false.”

Days after my Jan. 24, 2020, Washington Times report on the WIV, I was surprised to see the article suddenly disappear from the Internet.

My reporting quoted former Israeli military intelligence officer Dany Shoham, an expert on biological warfare who had studied China’s germ weapons program, as saying the WIV is known to do military work — a claim that at the time was still being denied by the communist Chinese government. The virus, he said, could have leaked from the institute’s secure lab.

The headline on my story read “Coronavirus may have originated in lab linked to China’s biowarfare program.” The lead sentence: “The deadly animal-borne coronavirus spreading globally may have originated in a laboratory in the city of Wuhan linked to China’s covert biological weapons program, said an Israeli biological warfare analyst.”

At the time, very little was known about the origin of the virus. But China’s propaganda organs were in full blare asserting the virus originated in a Wuhan wild animal market, a theme dutifully picked up by an unquestioning U.S. and international news media. The only problem: The ruling Chinese Communist Party and its state-controlled health authorities have been unable to identify any animal host that supposedly transmitted the virus to humans.

It turned out Facebook censorship police had contacted the paper’s editors. They insisted the article be removed for supposedly spreading false information about the coronavirus. 

As justification, the social media giant referred to a March 21, 2020, “fact check” by USA Today reporter Mollie Stollino, who concluded that my piece was “one of the most prominent examples of false information” about the coronavirus and its possible links to the Chinese government.

“There is no evidence to suggest that the virus was created in a Chinese laboratory,” she wrote.

When I complained, USA Today issued an update and removed the characterization that my article was “an example of false information.” But the updated article still insisted that the theory that the virus may have leaked from the Wuhan lab had been “debunked as false” by “scientists.”

The revised USA Today “fact-check” then described my story as “one of the most prominent initial reports” suggesting that the virus may have originated in the Wuhan lab. It went on to report that “people on multiple platforms and networks have shared the same or a similar version of the conspiracy.” One of the sources USA Today relied upon to attack my reporting was a Washington Post article with the headline, “Experts debunk fringe theory linking China’s coronavirus to weapons research.”

In the months since, USA Today has substantially confirmed my story — though they and Facebook still smear my reporting as “partly false.”

Through an evolving set of “corrections & clarifications” quietly amended to their “fact-check,” USA Today now concedes: “Circumstantial evidence suggests the virus could have escaped from the Wuhan lab due to a lapse in safety measures.

Meanwhile, Facebook censors downgraded their assessment from “false” to “partly false” with no further explanation.

That was hardly a consolation for this reporter who has spent four decades covering China. I went from being accused of making up the whole story to being accused of making up half the story. 

Facebook refused repeated requests for comment.

Vindication of the accuracy of my reporting came Jan. 15 of this year, nearly a year after my initial story.

The State Department published a report on the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which was supposedly a civilian laboratory. The report offered previously undisclosed evidence that the case for the lab leak theory was circumstantial but strong. The U.S. government’s conclusion is that the origin of the virus cannot be determined because of the extreme secrecy of the Chinese government.

The report, “Fact Sheet: Activity at the Wuhan Institute of Virology,” explained, “We have not determined whether the outbreak began through contact with infected animals or was the result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan, China.”

The fact sheet revealed that workers at the Wuhan institute had become sickened with COVID-19-like symptoms in the autumn of 2019 — before the first cases of the disease began appearing at Wuhan hospitals. Further, the report for the first time revealed that the Wuhan Institute of Virology had been conducting secret military experiments for two years prior to the outbreak.

“Despite the WIV presenting itself as a civilian institution, the United States has determined that the WIV has collaborated on publications and secret projects with China’s military,” the report said. “The WIV has engaged in classified research, including laboratory animal experiments, on behalf of the Chinese military since at least 2017.”

This is precisely what was so important about my original report over a year ago.

Lastly, the report said researchers at the institute conducted experiments with a bat coronavirus called RaTG13 that is 96.2% similar to the coronavirus behind the pandemic, adding that the institute “has not been transparent or consistent” about its past research into viruses similar to COVID-19.

The recent visit to China by World Health Organization investigators was delayed repeatedly by Chinese authorities. Furthermore, the team’s ability to examine raw Chinese health data when it finally reached Wuhan has been questioned.

“WHO investigators must have access to the records of the WIV’s work on bat and other coronaviruses before the COVID-19 outbreak,” the State Department report said. “As part of a thorough inquiry, they must have a full accounting of why the WIV altered and then removed online records of its work with RaTG13 and other viruses.”

Amazingly, USA Today — as well as Facebook — continues running interference on behalf of the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the communist Chinese government. While USA Today quietly revised their story yet again this week to include the government report, the newspaper remains adamant about dispelling questions into the lab.

“Based on the latest State Department document, there is still no evidence that the virus originated in a Wuhan laboratory, just as there is no decisive evidence to disprove that theory,” said USA Today senior editor Martina Stewart.

The greatest threat this past year is this virus that has killed two-and-a-half million people around the globe. We will never get to the truth about the origins of this pandemic or how to prevent the next one as long as Facebook, USAToday and other major media companies collaborate to silence and smear anyone seeking to report the truth.

• Bill Gertz is national security correspondent for The Washington Times and author of the book “Deceiving the Sky: Inside Communist China’s Drive for Global Supremacy.”

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