The claim: The coronavirus pandemic is planned and profit-seeking, including by the CDC and NIH
A new video — entitled “Plandemic II: Indoctornation” — has spread online and on Facebook since Aug. 18, proliferating a baseless conspiracy theory about the nature of the coronavirus pandemic.
The 75-minute documentary is a follow-up to a similar video that went viral in May — and was removed by social media platforms for spreading misinformation. Its description claims it “tracks a three decade-long money trail that leads directly to the key players behind the COVID-19 pandemic.”
This theory is explained by David E. Martin, credited as a national intelligence analyst, founder of IQ100 Index and self-proclaimed developer of “Linguistic Genomics” with a Ph.D. from the University of Virginia.
He lays out three arguments.
First, Martin claims that after the February 2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome in China, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “saw the possibility of a goldstrike.”
“They saw that a virus they knew could be easily manipulated was something that was very valuable,” Martin said. “In 2003, they sought to patent it, and they made sure that they controlled the proprietary rights to the disease, to the virus, and to its detection, and all of the measurement of it.”
As a result of the patent, he claimed the CDC controlled “100% of the cash flow that built the empire around the industrial complex of coronavirus.” With the patent secured, the CDC “had the ability to control who was authorized and who was not authorized to make independent inquiries into coronavirus,” he added.
“Ultimately receiving the patents that constrained anyone from using it, they had the means, they had the motive, and most of all, they had the monetary gain, from turning coronavirus from a pathogen to profit,” he said.
More: Claim in viral ‘Plandemic’ video ‘could lead to imminent harm,’ Facebook says
Second, Martin draws on the patent to conclude that either the coronavirus is man-made or the patent on it is illegal because the Patent Act prohibits patents on “natural phenomena.”
“Nature is prohibited from being patented,” he said. “Either SARS-CoV was manufactured, therefore making a patent on it legal, or it was natural, therefore making a patent on it illegal.”
“In either outcome, both are illegal,” he added.
Third, Martin alleged that the National Institutes of Health believed there were legal and moral issues with its research on coronaviruses, which motivated scientists to transfer the research to China.
He based that assertion on a protocol change that placed a moratorium on funding for gain-of-function research on a number of viruses in the United States, including coronaviruses.
“When the heat gets hot in 2014, 2015, what do you do?” he said. “You offshore the research. You fund the Wuhan Institute of Virology to do the stuff that sounds like it’s getting a little edgy with respect to its morality and legality.”
“But do you do it straightway? No,” he added. “You run the money through a series of cover organizations to make it look like you’re funding a U.S. operation which then subcontracts with the Wuhan Institute of Virology.”
As he spoke, images of NIH’s Research Online Portfolio Reporting Tools appeared on the screen to show $3.7 million in funding to a project by the EcoHealth Alliance, “Understanding the Risk of Bat Coronavirus Emergence.”
Martin claimed these efforts were to obscure the origin of the coronavirus.
“The U.S. could say China did it,” Martin said. “China could say, the U.S. did it.”
Fact check: Obama administration did not send $3.7 million to Wuhan lab
The patent of SARS-CoV by the CDC was not for profit
It’s true that the CDC filed a patent application on SARS-CoV in 2004; it was granted in 2007.
Martin, in a follow-up email to USA TODAY, said the intentions behind the patent were to create a monopoly, and that the CDC’s statements regarding the patent are “falsified by their own actions.”
But contrary to Martin’s claims of complete proprietary control and untold profit, the CDC said it filed a SARS-CoV patent to preserve access.
In May 2005, CDC spokesman Llelwyn Grant told the Associated Press that “the whole purpose of the patent is to prevent folks from controlling the technology.”
“This is being done to give the industry and other researchers reasonable access to the samples,” he added.
Later that month, then-CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding reiterated the importance of open access to the virus and its genome at a press conference.
“The concern that the federal government is looking at right now is that we could be locked out of this opportunity to work with this virus if it’s patented by someone else,” Gerberding wrote. “By initiating steps to secure patent rights, we assure that we will be able to continue to make the virus and the products from the virus available in the public domain, and that we can continue to promote the rapid technological transfer of this biomedical information into tools and products that are useful to patients.”
“From our standpoint, it’s a protective measure to make sure that the access to the virus remains open for everyone,” she added, noting that CDC had published the genome on its website.
That practice is known as “defensive patenting,” and in the case of SARS-CoV, it wasn’t just undertaken by the CDC. The British Columbia Cancer Agency and the University of Hong Kong also sought coronavirus-related patents in the name of “defensive patenting,” per a paper on the subject in the Melbourne Journal of International Law in 2004 by Matthew Rimmer, an intellectual property law professor.
“That is, by filing patent applications, they intended to pre-empt commercial applicants from obtaining patent rights that might hinder further research and development on SARS,” Rimmer wrote. “Such a tactic is common amongst commercial firms.”
Fact check: US government did not engineer COVID-19
The patent was not illegal, and the virus is not man-made
But was the patent illegal?
It’s true that the Patent Act prohibits patents on “natural phenomena,” and the Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that a naturally occurring DNA segment is a product of nature and not eligible for patent protection. However, the high court found that complimentary DNA — known as cDNA — “is not a ‘product of nature’ and is patent eligible under (the law).”
The specific patent of SARS-CoV featured in “Plandemic II” — “Coronavirus isolated from humans,” Patent #7,220,852 B1 — includes the “isolated coronavirus genome, isolated coronavirus proteins, and isolated nucleic acid molecules.” About 20 pages of the patent describe the process of isolating the genome, including the synthesis of cDNA.
Experts also noted that other steps in the process — like stripping genetic material from its chromosome and creating copies, or the use of biotechnology in general — likely made the patent viable.
But just because the SARS-CoV patent was legal does not mean the virus was man-made or manufactured, as the video alleges. The patent includes man-made technology used to sequence the virus’ genome, not to manufacture the virus itself.
SARS-CoV also isn’t the same as COVID-19, which is technically called SARS-CoV-2. While the viruses are from the same family, they differ in a number of key factors, including severity, transmission and genetic similarity — SARS-CoV-2 is only about 79% correlated to SARS-CoV.
Fact check: Coronavirus not man-made or engineered but its origin remains unclear
And there’s scientific consensus that SARS-CoV-2, or COVID-19, is not man-made.
More than two dozen public health experts issued a statement to The Lancet in February to “strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin.”
They continued: “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, as have so many other emerging pathogens.”
And an article published in Nature Medicine in March found that the genetic makeup of the virus that causes COVID-19 indicates that it has not been altered by humans. “We do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible,” its authors wrote, instead concluding that the virus likely originated from bats, like SARS-CoV.
The video attempts to bolster its claims that the coronavirus is man-made with interviews from Dr. Meryl Nass — who claimed arguments that it is not man-made “don’t hold water,” but never explained why — and French virologist Luc Montagnier, whose theory about why the virus is man-made has been debunked.
Fact check: ‘ShadowGate’ video spreads misinformation, conspiracy theories about major events
The research moratorium at NIH was not related to the research project at EcoHealth Alliance, Wuhan Institute
In October 2014, due to “biosafety and biosecurity risks,” the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy issued a moratorium on funding for gain-of-function research on influenza, SARS and MERS, per the NIH.
That refers to “research that increases the ability of any of these infectious agents to cause disease by enhancing its pathogenicity or by increasing its transmissibility among mammals by respiratory droplets,” NIH Director Francis S. Collins wrote in a statement at the time.
But the response to the pause in research in the United States wasn’t to outsource.
In fact, the project that the video cites as an example of the “offshoring” of unsafe research actually started before the moratorium.
The first iteration of the EcoHealth Alliance’s “Understanding the Risk of Bat Coronavirus Emergence” project began in June 2014, months before the moratorium. It was established “to understand what factors allow coronaviruses, including close relatives to SARS, to evolve and jump into the human population,” and yielded 20 scientific reports on how zoonotic diseases may transfer from bats to humans.
The study was aimed at identifying locations to monitor for new coronaviruses, forming strategies to prevent animal-to-human transmission of the virus, and creating vaccines and treatments, according to NPR. (There are many types of coronaviruses, seven of which are known to affect humans.)
USA TODAY previously reported that Over the course of the two grants approved by the NIH for EcoHealth Alliance, the Wuhan Institute received about $600,000 from the NIH, according to Robert Kessler, a spokesperson for EcoHealth Alliance. The funding was a fee for the collection and analysis of viral samples.
In a grant approved in 2014, about $133,000 was sent to the institute in the first four years and about $66,000 in the past year. In a second grant approved in 2019, about $76,000 was budgeted for the Wuhan Institute, though no money was sent before the grant’s termination, as previously reported by USA TODAY.
Fact check: Viral photo shows Obama, Fauci visiting NIH lab in 2014, not a ‘Wuhan lab’ in 2015
The moratorium on gain-of-function research in the U.S. was lifted in December 2017, when the Department of Health and Human Services issued new guidelines for the experiments, per the NIH.
The EcoHealth Alliance project — which had successfully identified hundreds of coronaviruses to date — only came to a halt in April, when conspiracy theories about the origins of virus began to intensify and its funding was abruptly cut by the Trump administration.
More: U.S. cuts funding to group studying bat coronaviruses in China
Our ruling: False
Based on our research, the claim that the pandemic was “planned” or created by the CDC, NIH, EcoHealth Alliance, or the Wuhan Virology Institute is FALSE.
“Plandemic II: Indoctornation” is based on a number of cherry-picked facts, such as the existence of a patent on the genome of SARS-CoV, and the transfer of funds from the NIH to EcoHealth Alliance to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The nefarious extrapolations it makes are unsupported and even disproven by facts.
The CDC did patent the genome of SARS-CoV. But it was legal and intended to ensure open access for all researchers, not for profit. SARS-CoV is not the same virus as SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19. And the project funded by the NIH at EcoHealth Alliance, in part involving the Wuhan Virology Institute, was to identify and fight coronaviruses, not create them.
Our fact-check sources:
National Institutes of Health, Research Online Portfolio Reporting Tools, Project Information: Understanding the Risk of Bat Coronavirus Emergence (2014-2019)
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, May 6, 2003, CDC Telebriefing Transcript: CDC Update on Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)
Supreme Court of the United States, June 13, 2013, Association for Molecular Pathology Et Al. v Myriad Genetics, Inc., Et Al.
Melbourne Journal of International Law, 2004, “The Race to Patent the SARS Virus”
United States Patent Office, Patent #7,220,852 B1, May 22, 2007, Coronavirus isolated from humans
CBC, June 12, 2013, Can you patent a disease?
FindLaw, May 29, 2003, SARS and the Patent Race: What Can We Learn from the HIV/AIDS Crisis?
CDC, Human Coronavirus Types
Healthline, April 2, COVID-19 vs. SARS: How Do They Differ?
The Lancet, February 19, Statement in support of the scientists, public health professionals, and medical professionals of China combatting COVID-19
Nature Medicine, March 17, The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2
Science Feedback, Nobel laureate Luc Montagnier inaccurately claims that the novel coronavirus is man-made and contains genetic material from HIV
National Institutes of Health, October 16, 2014, Statement on Funding Pause on Certain Types of Gain-of-Function Research
National Institutes of Health, Research Online Portfolio Reporting Tools, Project Information: Understanding the Risk of Bat Coronavirus Emergence (2014)
NPR, April 29, “Why The U.S. Government Stopped Funding A Research Project On Bats And Coronaviruses”
National Institutes of Health, December 19, 2017, NIH Lifts Funding Pause on Gain-of-Function Research
USA TODAY, July 22, “Fact check: Viral photo shows Obama, Fauci visiting NIH lab in 2014, not a ‘Wuhan lab’ in 2015”
USA TODAY, May 4, “Fact check: Obama administration did not send $3.7 million to Wuhan lab”
USA TODAY, May 9, “‘What about COVID-20?’ U.S. cuts funding to group studying bat coronaviruses in China”
Associated Press, May 5, 2003, “Race to Patent SARS Virus Renews Debate”
CDC, May 6, 2003, CDC Update on Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)
USA TODAY, June 29, “Fact check: US government did not engineer COVID-19”
USA TODAY, March 21, “Fact check: Coronavirus not man-made or engineered but its origin remains unclear”
Contributing: Kim Hjelmgaard, Matthew Brown
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: ‘Plandemic II’ alleges false CDC, NIH conspiracy theory