Meta, formerly known as Facebook, is revising its policies regarding COVID-19 misinformation on a global scale. The company will end the rules in countries like the United States, where the pandemic is no longer considered a national emergency, while keeping them intact in regions where the threat of misinformation remains high.
The Oversight Board's Recommendation and Meta's Response
In April, Meta's oversight board recommended maintaining the rules against misleading coronavirus content until global health authorities lifted the emergency status, which the World Health Organization did in May, two weeks later.
The board expressed criticism towards Meta, stating that the company insisted on a single, global approach to the issue, instead of developing a localized policy that took into account the regional progression of the pandemic. The advisory opinion from the board, consisting of legal experts and advocates, expressed frustration with Meta's refusal to consider alternative viewpoints and reconcile competing opinions on addressing harmful COVID-19 misinformation.
In the coming weeks, Meta will implement its new policy shift, aligning its position more closely with the board's recommendation. The company stated that in countries with a declared COVID-19 public health emergency, it will continue to remove content violating the COVID-19 misinformation policies due to the risk of immediate physical harm. Meta emphasized that its COVID-19 misinformation rules will no longer be effective globally, as the global public health emergency declaration triggering those rules has been lifted.
Meta plans to collaborate with health experts to identify specific claims that may still require removal in countries where emergency declarations are in effect. The company initially sought the oversight board's opinion on this matter in July 2022.
Meta's rules on medical misinformation have faced significant political backlash. Democrats accused the social media giant of failing to curb harmful claims about the virus, while Republicans criticized the company for suppressing views on the risks associated with the pandemic.
In May 2021, Meta sparked intense criticism when it announced that it would no longer remove claims suggesting that COVID-19 was manufactured or man-made, amidst renewed debate on the virus's origins. President Biden went as far as stating that social media platforms like Facebook were "killing people" by not taking stronger action against vaccine misinformation. Meta refuted Biden's claim, stating that it was not supported by the facts. Biden later retracted his statement and blamed misinformation spreaders.
In November, Twitter disclosed that it would no longer enforce its COVID misinformation rules, coinciding with Elon Musk taking over the platform. This change occurred months before the United States, or the World Health Organization declared an end to their health emergency declarations.
In a recent development, Instagram reinstated the account of Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a prominent vaccine skeptic and the nephew of the late President John F. Kennedy. Kennedy's account had been removed in 2021 for repeatedly sharing debunked claims about the coronavirus and vaccines.
As for YouTube, its policies currently state that it prohibits content denying the existence of the coronavirus, encouraging the use of home remedies as medical treatment alternatives, or explicitly disputing the efficacy of social distancing guidelines issued by global or local health authorities. The platform's policies remain subject to change based on updates from health authorities.
Top Chinese Scientist Highlights Possibility of COVID Lab Leak
As the world continues to grapple with the origins of the Covid-19 virus, a former prominent Chinese government scientist has emphasized that the possibility of a laboratory leak should not be dismissed. Professor George Gao, who previously served as the head of China's Centre for Disease Control (CDC) and played a crucial role in the pandemic response and origin-tracing efforts, expressed a more open stance than the official Chinese government's position.
In an interview for the BBC Radio 4 podcast "Fever: The Hunt for Covid's Origin," Professor Gao, a renowned virologist and immunologist who now serves as the president of China's International Institute of Vaccine Innovation, stated: "You can always suspect anything. That's science. Don't rule out anything."
Despite China's government vehemently dismissing any suggestions of a Wuhan laboratory origin for the disease, Professor Gao's remarks hint at a potentially different perspective. Notably, he revealed that a formal investigation into the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) had taken place, suggesting that the Chinese government may have accorded more significance to the lab leak theory than its official statements conveyed. However, he clarified that the investigation did not involve his department, the China CDC.
When asked about the investigation, Professor Gao affirmed that the experts in the field had double-checked the lab. Although he had not personally seen the results, he mentioned hearing that the lab had adhered to all protocols, and no evidence of wrongdoing had been found.
Unraveling the Origins of Covid-19
The Covid-19 virus is widely believed to have originated from bats. However, the question of how it transitioned from bats to humans has sparked a contentious debate. Two main possibilities emerged from the scientific community.
The first possibility is that the virus naturally spread from bats to humans, potentially via intermediary animals. Many scientists assert that this scenario is the most likely, given the weight of evidence.
However, an alternative theory posits that the virus infected an individual involved in research aimed at understanding the threat of naturally emerging viruses. Some scientists argue that there is insufficient evidence to rule out this lab-related scenario.
Concerns Surrounding a Potential Lab Leak
In January 2020, as the coronavirus outbreak was gaining momentum, Professor Wang Linfa, a Singapore-based scientist and honorary professor at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), visited the facility. During his visit, a colleague at the WIV expressed concerns about the possibility of a lab leak, which Professor Wang claims were subsequently allayed.
Professor Wang, an expert in emerging infectious diseases, collaborates regularly with Professor Shi Zhengli, another renowned scientist specializing in bat coronaviruses at the WIV. Professor Wang recounted how Professor Shi shared her worries about a potential lab leak and diligently checked her samples for evidence of the Covid-causing virus or any closely related viruses. The results were negative, indicating no traces of the virus in her lab.
Despite U.S. intelligence suggesting that several WIV researchers fell ill in autumn 2019 with symptoms consistent with Covid-19, Professor Wang revealed that he advised Professor Shi to test her team for Covid antibodies in January 2020. All the tests yielded negative results. However, it is worth noting that transparency from China has been limited.
Examining the Huanan Seafood Market and Lab Scenarios
A group of scientists, including Professor Wang, strongly believe that the evidence overwhelmingly supports the theory that the virus was transmitted to humans through the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan. This market, which sold more than seafood and included wild mammals, was connected to many early cases.
Although China's transparency has been questioned, these scientists argue that there is sufficient information, such as data on the early cases and environmental sampling within the market, to dismiss the lab leak theory. Notably, a March 2020 scientific paper titled "The Proximal Origin of Sars-Cov-2," authored by prominent virologists and experts in emerging diseases, vehemently dismissed the possibility of a laboratory-based scenario, contributing to the prevailing notion that the lab leak theory was a conspiracy. However, one of the authors, Professor Ian Lipkin from Columbia University, now admits to doubting the strength of their previous conclusion. While he still considers the market the most plausible origin and believes the virus was not deliberately engineered, he suggests that all lab-related scenarios cannot be excluded.
Professor Lipkin points to another Wuhan laboratory, operated by the Wuhan Centre for Disease Control, situated near the Huanan Seafood Market. Chinese news reports have indicated that this laboratory engaged in the collection of numerous blood and fecal samples from wild bats, potentially without adequate protective measures, posing a clear risk of infection.
The ongoing debate surrounding the origin of Covid-19 persists, with Professor Gao's comments seemingly conflicting with China's official stance. However, when viewed from another perspective, there may be more common ground than meets the eye. The Chinese government has promoted an unsubstantiated theory that the virus entered the country through frozen food packaging, dismissing both the lab and market origins. Professor Gao's comments could be considered a more scientifically inclined version of this position, as he refrains from ruling out either scenario, emphasizing the lack of conclusive evidence.
In conclusion, the question of Covid-19's origin remains open, and further investigation is necessary to ascertain the truth. Scientific research and global collaboration are essential to unraveling the mysteries surrounding this devastating pandemic.