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Fact-check: It’s state lawmaker’s claim that coronavirus was ‘man-made’ that is actually made-up

“I believe someone was in cahoots for some reason, and I think it just got a little bit out of control and spread a whole lot further than they anticipated,” Illinois Senate Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford said. But to leading experts, the research is clear: The genetic structure of the virus shows it could not have been created in a lab — or be “man-made.”

Illinois Senate Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford, D-Maywood, in May.
Illinois Senate Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford, D-Maywood, leads from the pulpit during a debate at the Illinois state Capitol on Thursday.
Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register via AP

Speculation about the origin of the novel coronavirus has spread online since the beginning of the pandemic, with Facebook posts and tabloids making baseless claims the virus was created in a lab.

But it isn’t only social media users who have perpetuated the conspiracy theory that the virus was bioengineered. In Illinois, a prominent state politician suggested the same thing:

“This man-made killer — whoever went in there and man-made it, perhaps they should be in there now trying to figure out how to turn this around,” Illinois Senate Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford of Maywood said during a May 15 appearance on Fox 32.

“I don’t believe it’s a natural virus,” Lightford continued, after the program’s host asked Lightford if she thinks the virus did not occur naturally. “I believe someone was in cahoots for some reason, and I think it just got a little bit out of control and spread a whole lot further than they anticipated.”

But to leading experts, the research is clear: The genetic structure of the virus shows it could not have been created in a lab — or be “man-made,” as Lightford claimed.

AP Photos

An article published March 17 in Nature Medicine says the genetic makeup of the coronavirus does not indicate it was altered. Instead, the researchers who conducted the analysis present two plausible explanations for the origin of the virus: natural selection in an animal host, or natural selection in humans after the virus spread from animals.

That finding doesn’t rule out the much-publicized theory the virus may have somehow escaped from a lab in China where it was being studied, though the government there has denied this. But what is known makes it clear the virus itself is not the result of human tampering.

“Our analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus,” the article states, using the scientific name for the virus that causes COVID-19.

Experts from a number of different research and public health institutions, including the World Health Organization, say the most likely explanation for the virus is that it originated in animals.

U.S. intelligence officials and Dr. Anthony Fauci, who directs the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, have also said the science indicates the virus was not made in a lab.

President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence listen as Dr. Anthony Fauci speaks about the coronavirus last month.
President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence listen as Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speaks about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington last month.
Alex Brandon, AP File

When we reached out to Lightford, she acknowledged she had no evidence to support her assertion the virus was created by humans.

“I have nothing to back it up,” she wrote in a text in response to our call. “I was generally speaking. Only my opinion.”

Our ruling

Lightford said the novel coronavirus was “man-made.”

But research shows the genetic features of the virus rule out the possibility it was created or manipulated in a lab. The consensus among experts is that it originated in animals before being transmitted to humans.

We rate her claim False.

FALSE — The statement is not accurate.

Click here for more on the six PolitiFact ratings and how we select facts to check.

The Better Government Association runs PolitiFact Illinois, the local arm of the nationally renowned, Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking enterprise that rates the truthfulness of statements made by governmental leaders and politicians. BGA’s fact-checking service has teamed up weekly with the Sun-Times, in print and online. You can find all of the PolitiFact Illinois stories we’ve reported together here.

Sources

“Fact-checking hoaxes and conspiracies about the coronavirus,” PolitiFact, Jan. 24, 2020

Flannery Fired Up episode, Fox 32, May 15, 2020

“What we know about the source of the coronavirus pandemic,” PolitiFact, April 17, 2020

“The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2,” Nature Medicine, March 17, 2020

Statement from Prof Edward Holmes on the SARS-CoV-2 virus, University of Sydney, April 16, 2020

“Experts debunk fringe theory linking China’s coronavirus to weapons research,” Washington Post, Jan. 29, 2020

“Statement in support of the scientists, public health professionals, and medical professionals of China combatting COVID-19,” The Lancet, Feb. 19, 2020

“Fact check: Coronavirus not man-made or engineered but its origin remains unclear,” USA Today, April 21, 2020

“How coronavirus mutations can track its spread—and disprove conspiracies,” National Geographic, March 26, 2020

“Scientists Try To Pinpoint Animal Origins Of COVID-19,” WBUR, Feb. 13, 2020

“US intel: Coronavirus not manmade, still studying lab theory,” The Associated Press, April 30, 2020

“Fauci: No scientific evidence the coronavirus was made in a Chinese lab,” National Geographic, May 4, 2020

Text messages, Illinois Sen. Kimberly Lightford, May 18, 2020