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A little over a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, doctoral candidate Lily Adams received an email from someone claiming to be a student journalist at UNC Pembroke.

Adams, who had been researching COVID-19 vaccines at UNC-Chapel Hill alongside virologist Ralph Baric, said she was asked about biosafety, dual-use research, and federally-funded researchers affiliated with China.

“This is really weird. Did anyone else get this email?” she asked in a lab meeting.

Rachel Graham, an assistant professor of epidemiology who has been studying coronaviruses since just before the SARS outbreak of 2003, is no stranger to probing emails. She advised Adams not to answer the request.

Adams could not confirm the identity of the person who emailed her.

“I got no resolution from it," Adams said. "There's no closure. I don't know if this person really was a journalism student."

Since the start of the pandemic, the Baric Lab has been the target of internet conspiracy theories, ranging from accusations of engineering SARS-CoV-2 — the virus that causes COVID-19 — to allegations of bioweaponry.

There is no evidence to support these claims. In 2021, the National Intelligence Council determined the virus “was not developed as a biological weapon” and most intelligence agencies assessed that COVID-19 was likely not genetically engineered.

“We've had death threats,” Graham said. “And that's something that you have to actually live with in your head.”

Lengthy blog entries and hundreds of social media posts dedicated to theories about Baric and the lab have flooded the internet. Larger sites like The Defender, which is tied to anti-vaccine nonprofit Children’s Health Defense, have also taken to criticizing Baric.

“It didn't become stressful until the conspiracy theories got really bad,” Adams said.

Lab research

Baric’s research has aided in the development of the Moderna vaccine and an oral antiviral called molnupiravir, which was shown to reduce the risk of COVID-19-related hospitalization and deaths by 30 percent in a 2021 trial.

But even the life-saving research has been used as fuel for conspiracies.

“@Baric_Lab made this virus. He also made the cure,” one Twitter user wrote on May 4.

While threats aimed at the Baric Lab have become a frequent and consistent presence on social media, the implications of conspiracies and social media discourse are not necessarily confined to the internet.

Adams said an individual showed up at the building of the Baric Lab in fall 2021. They wanted to talk about COVID-19.

“The person was clearly agitated, clearly looking for the Baric Lab and was escorted out by the security guard,” Adams said, noting that it wasn't clear what the person's intentions were. 

A number of security protocols have since been adopted.

Adams said there is now a permanent security guard, the doors of the lab remain locked and work phone numbers and lab locations have been removed from the public directory. She said lab workers now have code words to alert security in case someone threatening shows up at the lab.

“I never thought that I would be a part of something that fueled conspiracy theories,” Adams said.

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Conspiracy origins

In 2015, Baric collaborated on a study with virologist Shi Zhengli of the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) in China. Their research found that a SARS-like virus in bat populations had the potential to spread to humans.

At the start of the pandemic, theories began to emerge that Baric had collaborated with WIV to create a “supervirus.”

The editors of the study added a note in March 2020 acknowledging the theory and saying it had no basis.

“We are aware that this article is being used as the basis for unverified theories that the novel coronavirus causing COVID-19 was engineered,” the note reads. “There is no evidence that this is true; scientists believe that an animal is the most likely source of the coronavirus.”

In late February, the U.S. Department of Energy concluded with “low confidence” that the COVID-19 pandemic was "likely" caused by a lab leak in Wuhan, where cases were first reported in December 2019. In 2021, the Federal Bureau of Investigation came to the same conclusion with “moderate confidence.”

A low confidence level indicates that information used in the analysis is “scant, questionable, fragmented, or that solid analytical conclusions cannot be inferred from the information, or that the intelligence community has significant concerns or problems with information sources,” according to the federal government.

In July, a group of scientists published a paper in Science Journal concluding that the origins of the pandemic can be traced back to a seafood market in Wuhan and that the virus likely spread from a wild animal to a human.

Regardless, the recent DOE finding has been used by some to exacerbate existing conspiracies about the Baric Lab and has given rise to a wave of new ones.

“Every time there's an article about the origins of COVID, it is paired almost instantly with a barrage of Twitter mentions of our lab to try to link to the lab leak theory again,” Adams said.

On Feb. 26, a Twitter user took to the platform to share their COVID-19 conspiracy theory.

“Fauci’s buddy Dr. Ralph Baric created COVID in UNC-Chapel Hill and US taxpayers paid to transfer his work to the Wuhan Lab after the NIH put a pause on gain-of-function research in the US in 2014 (the NIH lifted the pause in 2017),” they wrote.

In May 2021, Baric said in a statement that his studies on bat coronaviruses and transmission potential do not qualify as gain-of-function research.

The statement also says that independent studies have confirmed that none of the SARS-like viruses studied at UNC were related to SARS-Cov-2.

Gain-of-function research modifies a virus or organism to alter an existing property or introduce a new one. The method has been met with controversy in the field due to the risk of an accidental release of an enhanced virus. However, gain-of-function can help contribute to anti-pandemic efforts, as it provides scientists insight on how a virus may evolve.

“The Baric laboratory has never investigated strategies to create superviruses,” an excerpt from the statement reads.

Safety measures

While some social media posts about the lab focus on theories, others read more like threats.

A tweet posted on March 2 tagging the Baric Lab reads, “You and your maniacal flunkies caused the #murders of 1 million #Americans and 7 million people globally. A reckoning is coming...Enjoy your #freedom...While it lasts.”

Graham attributes online conspiracies to people’s desire to understand the origins of the pandemic.

“When things happen that hurt people — and a virus that crosses the planet and kills a lot of people definitely hurts people — they want to have a reason for why that happens,” she said.

Graham, who has been working with Baric since 2007, is also a member of the UNC Institutional Biosafety Committee, which oversees projects that may pose safety, health or environmental risks. Graham said that all of the lab’s work is reported to the IBC.

“One of the goals of responsible research is to make sure that it's done in a way that's transparent,” she said.

There are several engineering precautions in labs where human coronavirus research is conducted, Graham said.

Air flowing out of the lab is filtered, she said, and there is a multi-step screening for lab personnel. Employees are also provided with personal protective equipment with air filters that prevent them from being exposed to live viruses.

Graham said that the Baric Lab’s human coronavirus work is conducted in a biosafety level three laboratory that has a high level of containment.

“Our lab is really good about reporting and following protocol," Adams said. "And that has come back to be used against us."

Moving forward

Adams said that internet theories have impacted her social life — she has adopted a new level of guardedness when meeting people and said she stops herself from disclosing her profession “all the time."

“I’ve definitely removed people from my life, just because I can’t reason with them,” Adams said.

Graham said she sometimes searches her name on Twitter to see if anything “really weird” is being said about her and that she finds direct quotes from her emails that have appeared in public records requests.

“I'm doing things honestly and appropriately. And if someone wants to skew that, that's their deal,” Graham said. 

Baric did not respond for comment by the time of publication. 

He was a coauthor on a 2021 letter published in Science Journal calling for further investigation into the source of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“The origin of the virus that started this pandemic is worth discussing, it’s worth investigating,” Adams said. “But the conspiracy theories that have no foundation in science do nothing but cause harm and stress and damage to people like myself.”

@laurennfich

university@dailytarheel.com