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Covid-19: Who is Charles Lieber, the man conspiracy theorists say created the coronavirus?

The January arrest of a US scientist over his ties to China led to bogus claims that he was behind the emergence of the coronavirus.

Covid-19: Who is Charles Lieber, the man conspiracy theorists say created the coronavirus?
Menahem Kahana / AFPGetty Images

The coronavirus pandemic has, inevitably, brought with it a range of conspiracy theories about its origin - one of which claims that it is man-made and an American scientist recently arrested over his links to China helped create it.

Arrest of Harvard professor sparks internet gossip

In January, Harvard professor Charles Lieber was charged with lying to US federal authorities about payments he allegedly received from Wuhan University of Technology and concealing his participation in China’s Thousand Talents Plan, a state-run programme that recruits elite scientific talent.

Given that the coronavirus first appeared in Wuhan, however, Lieber’s apparent connections to the Chinese city quickly sparked internet rumours that he had in fact been arrested on suspicion of playing a part in manufacturing the virus.

This kind of speculation was only encouraged by Arkansas senator Tom Cotton, who said on Fox News in February that the question of whether the coronavirus came about in China by artificial means was one “we at least have to ask”.

Chinese nationals' arrest adds to Lieber rumours

The online gossip surrounding Lieber was further fuelled by the fact that his detention by US law enforcement was announced alongside that of two Chinese nationals, one of whom was described in a Facebook user's viral post as having been caught smuggling vials of “sensitive biological samples” back to China.

Lieber-was-behind-coronavirus claims debunked

But in an article that comprehensively debunks the idea that Lieber was apprehended for reasons relating to Covid-19, the fact-checking website Snopes.com clarifies that there is no connection between the arrests.

“The DOJ [Department of Justice] announced three separate arrests in January 2020,” Snopes says. “The first was Lieber. The second involved Yanqing Ye, a lieutenant in the Chinese army accused of stealing U.S. research. And third was Zaosong Zheng, who stole 21 vials of biological research. While these three arrests all involve people lying about their ties to China, they took place at different universities and are not related.”

Quoting the New York Times, moreover, Snopes reveals that the contents of these vials had nothing to do with the coronavirus, but were in fact cancer cells.

Experts insist coronavirus not of artificial origin

Prompted by false rumours such as those circulating about Lieber, experts have been swift to emphatically reject the notion that the coronavirus could be man-made. In a joint statement published in the medical journal Lancet in February, a group of 27 scientists said: “We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin.

“Scientists from multiple countries have published and analysed genomes of the causative agent, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), and they overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife”.

They added: “Conspiracy theories do nothing but create fear, rumours, and prejudice that jeopardise our global collaboration in the fight against this virus.“

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