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Republican U.S. Senate candidate Dave McCormick (second from right) meets with attendees during a campaign event in Coplay, Pennsylvania, on Jan. 25, 2022. (AP) Republican U.S. Senate candidate Dave McCormick (second from right) meets with attendees during a campaign event in Coplay, Pennsylvania, on Jan. 25, 2022. (AP)

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Dave McCormick (second from right) meets with attendees during a campaign event in Coplay, Pennsylvania, on Jan. 25, 2022. (AP)

Tom Kertscher
By Tom Kertscher February 11, 2022

No evidence for Senate hopeful McCormick’s claim that China created COVID-19

If Your Time is short

  • There is no evidence that China “created” the virus.

  • There is no scientific consensus on how the virus originated, but researchers believe it could have originated naturally or from an accident in a lab.

Battling in a crowded GOP primary campaign for an open U.S. Senate seat in Pennsylvania, businessman and Army veteran  Dave McCormick singled out rival Dr. Mehmet Oz before making an unsubstantiated claim about the origins of COVID-19.

"When Mehmet Oz questions my patriotism, he's crossed the line," McCormick said in a TV ad, referring to the physician and talk show host. "I joined the 82nd Airborne to fight communism. In combat, we faced down Chinese weapons. And like Trump, no one fought China harder for tough trade deals."

Then McCormick pivoted to the pandemic. 

"I approved this message because I'll fight for what Washington won't. We all know China created COVID. It's time to make them pay for it."

A message on the screen underscored McCormick's notion that China was at fault: "Make China pay trillions for COVID." 

The scientific consensus is that the virus originated in Wuhan, China, but there is no clear evidence that China created it, on purpose or by accident.

Alina Chan, a microbiologist at the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT, and co-author of "VIRAL: The Search for the Origin of COVID-19," said COVID-19 "may have a natural or lab origin, but no direct evidence has been found for either hypothesis." 

"If COVID was the result of manipulation in a laboratory, it is also important to make clear that similar research is conducted worldwide, even in the U.S., and the SARS-like virus researchers in Wuhan had received funding from the U.S. and Europe," she said.

Shifting views among experts

SARS-CoV-2 was first noticed in Wuhan, close to a lab where bat coronaviruses were being studied. 

Less than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, in late-summer 2020, the consensus among researchers was that the coronavirus had originated in bats before jumping to humans — though it was possible that Chinese researchers were studying the virus in a lab when it managed to spread outside the lab.

By the spring of 2021, that view softened. Scientists who studied the coronavirus generally concluded that it resembled naturally occurring viruses, but were paying more attention to the possibility that the virus somehow leaked from the lab. There was nothing conclusive, however.

Then in the fall, more evidence emerged indicating that the first outbreak occurred outside of a lab. University of Arizona evolutionary biologist Michael Worobey reported that the first known person sickened by the coronavirus was a vendor in a Wuhan animal market.

No evidence China created the virus

To back up McCormick’s claim, his campaign cited an August 2021 memo from the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence that summarized the views of U.S. intelligence agencies on the origin of COVID-19. 

The memo laid out the prevailing hypotheses, but did not make any finding that China created the virus.

The memo said the intelligence community agreed that "two hypotheses are plausible: natural exposure to an infected animal and a laboratory-associated incident." 

It added:

"We judge the virus was not developed as a biological weapon. Most agencies also assess with low confidence that SARS-CoV-2 probably was not genetically engineered; however, two agencies believe there was not sufficient evidence to make an assessment either way. Finally, the IC assesses China’s officials did not have foreknowledge of the virus before the initial outbreak of COVID-19 emerged."

One agency "assesses with moderate confidence that the first human infection with SARS-CoV-2 most likely was the result of a laboratory-associated incident, probably involving experimentation, animal handling, or sampling by the Wuhan Institute of Virology," the memo said.

McCormick’s campaign also cited a May 2021 Wall Street Journal article on a U.S. intelligence report that said three researchers from the institute became sick enough in November 2019 that they sought hospital care. The article pointed out that that is when experts believe the virus began circulating around Wuhan.

But that still provided no conclusion on how the coronavirus originated.

Current view: No evidence China created virus

In short, there is no evidence to back McCormick’s claim.

"There's absolutely no data to suggest China created COVID," said Kristian Andersen, a Scripps Research Institute professor of immunology and microbiology. "The evidence for natural emergence has only gotten stronger."

Richard Ebright, a professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Rutgers University, said it is unknown whether the virus entered humans "through a natural accident or through a laboratory accident. If SARS-CoV-2 entered humans through a laboratory accident, the accident may have involved a natural virus or may have involved a laboratory-modified virus." 

Joel Wertheim, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, San Diego, said scientists have found numerous bat viruses closely related to SARS-CoV-2 in southern China and Laos. "The genetic similarity of these viruses points to a natural reservoir for SARS-CoV-2 in this region," he said. 

"There is no evidence that SARS-CoV-2 was created in a lab. SARS-CoV-2 looks like other naturally circulating coronaviruses."

Lawmakers are seeking answers about the origin. Several days before McCormick’s ad began running, news reports said bipartisan draft legislation was being circulated in the Senate that would create a commission to examine the origins of the pandemic and the U.S. response.

Race could help decide Senate control

The Pennsylvania race is for the seat held by Republican Pat Toomey, who was first elected in 2010 and who decided not to seek re-election. The primaries are May 17.

McCormick is the former chief executive of the Bridgewater Associates hedge fund and held positions in President George W. Bush’s administration. The same day McCormick began running his ad, Oz ran an ad attacking McCormick as "China’s friend, not ours."

Other GOP candidates include conservative commentator Kathy Barnette, real estate developer Jeff Bartos and Carla Sands, former President Donald Trump's ambassador to Denmark. The Democratic candidates include U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman.

The race is rated a tossup and competitive. The outcome could help determine which party controls the Senate, which is now split 50-50.

China is a recurring theme in ads for Senate contests. A super PAC supporting Republican Josh Mandel for an open seat in Ohio claimed that Republican Jane Timken’s family business moved jobs to China. In a race for an open seat in Missouri, a super PAC backing Republican Eric Greitens attacked Republican Eric Schmitt over Missouri legislation Schmitt supported that helped China, in a claim we rated Half True. Meanwhile, Alex Lasry, one of the Democrats challenging GOP incumbent Ron Johnson in Wisconsin, pledged to "finally stand up to China."

Our ruling

McCormick claimed: "We all know China created COVID."

There is no clear evidence that China "created" the virus.

Scientists have not reached a consensus on how the virus originated. Researchers believe it could have originated naturally or from an accident in a lab.

We rate the claim False.

Our Sources

AdImpact.com, Dave McCormick "Crossed the Line" ad, accessed Jan. 31, 2022

Email, Jess Szymanski, Dave McCormick campaign communications director, Feb. 11, 2022

Office of the Director of National Intelligence, "Unclassified Summary of Assessment on COVID-19 Origins," Aug. 27, 2021

PolitiFact, "Debating the origins of the COVID-19 virus: What we know, what we don’t know," May 17, 2021

Wall Street Journal, "Intelligence on Sick Staff at Wuhan Lab Fuels Debate on Covid-19 Origin," May 23, 2021

Email, microbiologist Alina Chan, postdoctoral associate, Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research, Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT; co-author of "VIRAL: The Search for the Origin of COVID-19," Feb. 11, 2022

Email, Joel Wertheim, evolutionary biologist at the University of California, San Diego, Feb. 11, 2022

Email, Kristian Andersen, Scripps Research Institute professor of immunology and microbiology, Feb. 10, 2022

Email, Richard Ebright, Board of Governors professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Rutgers University, Feb. 10, 2022

Science, "Dissecting the early COVID-19 cases in Wuhan," Nov. 18, 2021

New York Times, "First Known Covid Case Was Vendor at Wuhan Market, Scientist Says," Nov. 18, 2021

Washington Post, "Senators release bipartisan plan to overhaul U.S. pandemic strategy, set up panel probing virus origins and response," Jan. 25, 2022

CNN, "Senators propose bipartisan legislation to bolster pandemic preparedness and examine US Covid-19 response," Jan. 25, 2022

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No evidence for Senate hopeful McCormick’s claim that China created COVID-19

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