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VERIFY: False claim alleging a Harvard professor was arrested for selling virus got more than one thing wrong

A Facebook post claimed that a Harvard professor made and sold the coronavirus to China, and also shared an unrelated video as if it were a source.

A viral Facebook post claimed that a Harvard professor was arrested for making the coronavirus and selling it to China. The post claimed that it was "just discovered" and that he was "arrested today."

The post then has a link embedded to a video of a news segment. At first glance, it appears to support the post -- the news piece is about the arrest of a man named Dr. Charles Lieber from Harvard. But viewers who were paying close attention may have noticed that the news piece never actually mentioned the coronavirus, or any other kind of virus.

Not only has the post since been taken down, it appears Facebook has taken down the page as a whole as well. The page’s URL now leads to a broken link.

It was likely taken down for sharing misinformation. Although that post wasn’t truthful, it wasn’t taken down before getting several hundred thousand shares.

THE QUESTION

Was a Harvard professor arrested for selling the coronavirus to China?

Credit: Andrew Kimmel

THE ANSWER

No. The Harvard professor was arrested for making false statements in connection to a broader probe about research theft. The Justice Department made no mention of any kind of virus in the arrest.

Additionally, this wasn’t "just discovered" and he wasn’t arrested the day the post was made. He was arrested in late January.

WHAT WE FOUND

Here’s the January 28 news article the video in the Facebook post comes from. The article says Lieber’s arrest was one of three unrelated arrests of scientists accused of hiding their affiliation with Chinese institutions.

The article says federal investigators found Lieber was awarded more than $1.5 million to establish a nanotechnology research lab at Wuhan University of Technology.

“Nanoscience and nanotechnology are the study and application of extremely small things and can be used across all the other science fields, such as chemistry, biology, physics, materials science, and engineering,” according to the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative.

The Department of Justice also released information about the arrest on January 28. They said he was arrested and “charged by criminal complaint with one count of making a materially false, fictitious and fraudulent statement.”

The Justice Department said he “received more than $15,000,000 in grant funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Department of Defense (DOD). These grants require the disclosure of significant foreign financial conflicts of interest, including financial support from foreign governments or foreign entities.” 

His connection to Wuhan University of Technology and China was particularly problematic because he was part of a Chinese recruitment program that the Justice Department claims rewards individuals for stealing proprietary information.

Nowhere in the Department of Justice press release, the news article or the news video embedded in the Facebook post are the words "virus," "COVID-19," "coronavirus" or "disease" used. None of the documents even use the word "sold."

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