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FactCheck: No, this photo does not show Obama visiting a Wuhan lab in 2015 to give millions to a 'bat project'

A photograph of Obama in Maryland has been falsely attributed to a laboratory in Wuhan.

Obama photo The photo, taken by Ashleigh Joplin for Associated Press, has been falsely attributed to a laboratory in Wuhan in 2015.

A PHOTOGRAPH OF former US President Barack Obama has been shared tens of thousands of times on social media claiming that it shows him visiting a laboratory in Wuhan, China in 2015 alongside Dr Anthony Fauci and Melinda Gates.

The claim has been shared most widely alongside a screenshot of a tweet which claims the visit to the lab was made in order to give millions of dollars to a ‘bat project’, fuelling conspiracy theories that Covid-19 was created in a lab.

The Claim

A tweet that has since been deleted claimed that the photo is of Obama, Dr Fauci, and Melinda Gates during a visit to a “WuHan lab” in 2015. 

The tweet, which was sent as a reply to a tweet from US presidential candidate Joe Biden, said that the visit was made to pay the lab “3.7 million for a ‘bat’ project”.

The claim has since been shared tens of thousands of times on social media through screenshots of the original tweet and in other forms.

A popular version of the claim combines a screenshot of the user’s tweet with the caption: “Dr. Fauci, Melinda Gates and Barack Obama at the Wuhan Lab in 2015…!!!”

The Evidence

The claim is incorrect for several reasons, including where and when the photo was taken and who appears in it.

Additionally, the tweet misrepresents funding for scientific research that was awarded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to a project researching future risk of coronaviruses carried out in the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

The NIH is a US government agency with responsibility for biomedical and public health research.

The photo is not from a lab in Wuhan or elsewhere in China, but from the NIH in Maryland, US.

The photo was taken in December 2014 during a tour Obama took of the NIH’s Vaccine Research Center to discuss progress on a vaccine for Ebola during the Ebola virus epidemic in West Africa.

Obama, Dr Fauci, and then-human services secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell are captured in the photograph, alongside Dr Nancy Sullivan, a senior investigator and chief of the Biodefense Research Section at the NIH’s Vaccine Research Center.

Dr Fauci has been the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984, and is a lead member of the Trump administration’s White House Coronavirus Task Force. 

Melinda Gates, the wife of Bill Gates and the co-founder of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the world’s largest private charitable oganisation, does not appear in the photograph.

Melinda and Bill Gates have been the subject of a significant number of false claims in relation to the coronavirus pandemic, including a false claim that they would appear alongside Dr Fauci before a human rights tribunal for war crimes that the TheJournal.ie has previously debunked.

Photos from the tour of the facility in Maryland were published to official websites in 2014, including the National Institutes of Health and the Obama White House archives. The misattributed photo was originally taken by Ashleigh Joplin for Associated Press.

In a blog posted to the NIH’s website on 2 December 2014, director Dr Francis Collins wrote: “Today, we had the great honor of welcoming President Barack Obama to the campus of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD – to see first-hand the progress that biomedical research is making against Ebola virus disease.”

Obama’s speech to the NIH was uploaded to the Obama White House’s YouTube account on the day of the visit – 2 December 2014 – and can be viewed here

In the video, he is pictured in the same clothes he is wearing in the photo that has been shared widely on social media.

Obama’s visit to the centre was documented by media outlets at the time, including by the New York Times, The Washington Post, and Reuters.

In addition to Ashleigh Joplin, whose photo for Associated Press has been used in the most popular iteration of the false claim, several other photographers captured the group at the institute, including Alex Wong for Getty Images and Doug Mills for the New York Times.

As well as the incorrect information about the photo’s date and location, and the people who are in it, the tweet’s assertion that the group paid the lab “3.7 million for a ‘bat’ project” is wrong.

In 2014, the National Institutes of Health awarded a $3.4 million (€2.9 million) grant to EcoHealth Alliance, a non-governmental organisation that leads research into connections between human, animal and environmental health.

EcoHealth Alliance gave $600,000 (€517,000) of that grant to the Wuhan Institute of Virology for a project examining the future risk of coronavirus emergence from wildlife.

The project description outlines that its aim was to “examine the risk of future coronavirus (CoV) emergence from wildlife using in-depth field investigations across the human-wildlife interface in China, molecular characterization of novel CoVs and host receptor binding domain genes, mathematical models of transmission and evolution, and in vitro and in vivo laboratory studies of host range”.

Coronavirus does not refer to one specific virus; rather, it is a type of a group of viruses. Covid-19, or SARS-CoV-2, is a novel coronavirus that originated in 2019 and did not exist before that. Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), a viral respiratory disease, is another illness caused by a type of coronavirus, and saw an outbreak in China in 2002 to 2004.

Scientists think that Covid-19 originated in bats, and that it could have been transmitted to humans through another mammal.

Wang Yanyi, director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, told Chinese state broadcaster CGTN in May that claims from Trump and others that the virus could have came from the institute were “pure fabrication”.

The institute has three live strains of bat coronavirus on-site, but none of the strains match Covid-19, the virus at the centre of the pandemic, according to the director.

Additionally, a US study of the coronavirus genome published in March concluded that the evidence showed Covid-19 is “not a purposefully manipulated virus”.

It found that all notable features of Covid-19 were observed in related coronaviruses seen in nature, and as a result, the researchers “do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible” for the origins of the virus.

The misinformation that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was awarded $3.7 million by the US government was shared in April on social media and some news outlets, including the Daily Mail and the Sun in the UK.

The claim has been used to spread conspiracy theories that Covid-19 was manufactured in a lab.

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The NIH’s grant to EcoHealth Alliance was renewed in 2019 for a further five years, but later terminated by NIH in April of this year.

Dr Fauci said that the funding was cancelled “because the NIH was told to cancel it” during a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce committee.

His comment can be heard four hours and 36 minutes into this video of the hearing.

“I don’t know the reason, but we were told to cancel it,” he said.

Politico reported that Fauci later told the publication that the order to cancel the funding had come from the White House, and that the White House said it had encouraged the decision, but the call came from the  US Department of Health and Human Service.

 A spokesperson for the US Department of Health and Human Service told Politico that “the grantee was not in compliance with NIH’s grant policy”.

The Verdict

A tweet and photo shared on social media claimed that the photo shows Barack Obama, Dr Fauci and Melinda Gates on a visit to a Wuhan laboratory in 2015 to give millions of dollars to a ‘bat project’.

In fact, the photo shows Obama, Dr Fauci, and Sylvia Burwell visiting the National Institutes of Health in Maryland in 2014. Melinda Gates, who has been the subject of previous false claims relating to coronavirus, does not appear in the photograph.

The suggestion that a laboratory in Wuhan was given “3.7 million for a ‘bat’ project” is incorrect. The US government gave a $3.4 million grant to the National Institutes of Health, which gave $600,000 to the Wuhan Institute of Virology to study the risk of future emergence of coronavirus.

As a result, we rate the claim that Obama, Dr Fauci and Melinda Gates are pictured in this photo visiting a Wuhan laboratory in 2015 to give millions to a ‘bat project’: FALSE. As per our verdict guide, this means: The claim is inaccurate. 

*****

There is a lot of false news and scaremongering being spread in Ireland at the moment about coronavirus. Here are some practical ways for you to assess whether the messages that you’re seeing – especially on WhatsApp – are true or not. 

STOP, THINK AND CHECK 

Look at where it’s coming from. Is it someone you know? Do they have a source for the information (e.g. the HSE website) or are they just saying that the information comes from someone they know? A lot of the false news being spread right now is from people claiming that messages from ‘a friend’ of theirs. Have a look yourself – do a quick Google search and see if the information is being reported elsewhere. 

Secondly, get the whole story, not just a headline. A lot of these messages have got vague information (“all the doctors at this hospital are panicking”) and don’t mention specific details. This is often – but not always a sign – that it may not be accurate. 

Finally, see how you feel after reading it. A lot of these false messages are designed to make people feel panicked. They’re deliberately manipulating your feelings to make you more likely to share it. If you feel panicked after reading something, check it out and see if it really is true.

TheJournal.ie’s FactCheck is a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles. You can read it here. For information on how FactCheck works, what the verdicts mean, and how you can take part, check out our Reader’s Guide here. You can read about the team of editors and reporters who work on the factchecks here

Have you gotten a message on WhatsApp or Facebook or Twitter about coronavirus that you’re not sure about and want us to check it out? Message or mail us and we’ll look into debunking it. WhatsApp: 085 221 4696 or Email: answers@thejournal.ie

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