Fact check: False connections drawn between Wuhan lab, vaccine research affiliates

Ella Lee

The claim: A series of links exists between Wuhan Institute of Virology and companies, figures central to development of COVID-19 vaccine

As COVID-19 vaccines begin to roll out, some have questioned their safety and efficacy. Going further, a post on social media claims that the vaccines can be tied to a suspicious lineup of invested parties. 

A Facebook post claims that the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a research center in the Chinese city where the coronavirus emerged, can be linked to a number of individuals and pharmaceutical companies involved in researching the COVID-19 vaccine. Conspiracy theorists have claimed, without evidence, that the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 was manufactured there.

The post, which has been shared over 1,100 times, claims that the lab in Wuhan is owned by pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline, which supposedly owns Pfizer, the first drug company to receive emergency authorization for a COVID-19 vaccine. The purported connections further spiral, eventually suggesting the involvement of billionaires George Soros and Bill Gates.

The post's creator did not respond to USA TODAY's request for comment.

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Wuhan lab funded by Chinese government

The claim starts to fall apart in its first sentence. The post alleges that the "Chinese biological laboratory in Wuhan," likely the Wuhan Institute of Virology, is owned by GlaxoSmithKline. It then tumbles into a series of claims about ownership and financing based on that original relationship — which doesn't exist. 

The full name of the institute, which studies viral diseases, is Wuhan Institute of Virology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, according to its website. It's controlled by China's State Council, one of the country's main government bodies. 

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In a 2019 open letter to the science journal Nature, a CAS representative wrote that the academy has never achieved financial independence from China. Half of its income comes directly from the government, and the rest comes from "competitive funding or technology transfer," according to the letter.

"CAS is not run independently of government ... The establishment and development of CAS have been entirely based on the wisdom and support of the central government," the letter reads.

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Other claimed connections collapse

Without the original tie linking the Wuhan lab to Glaxo, the claim's intended revelation is rendered meaningless. Still, there are a number of other misrepresentations in the post worth noting.

Firstly, British pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline doesn't own Pfizer.

Pfizer was incorporated in New Jersey in 1900, originally dividing its $2 million of authorized capital into 20,000 shares as a privately held company, its website says. But in 1942, the pharmaceutical company offered 240,000 shares of new common stock to the public; now the company has roughly 69% public ownership

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GSK and Pfizer embarked on a joint venture in 2018, aiming to combine their consumer health care units to allow each company to focus on prescription medicines. But that venture doesn't involve merging or swapping ownership. 

The post also brings investment firm BlackRock into the fold, claiming it "manages" both Pfizer and the "Open Foundation Company," referring to, albeit misnaming, billionaire George Soros' Open Society Foundations. Soros often plays the central role in baseless conspiracy theories, most recently surrounding the pandemic and vaccination against COVID-19. 

A search of both Soros' Open Society Foundation's and BlackRock's websites found no indication the two are tied. 

BlackRock does hold about 414.7 million shares in Pfizer, reporting in February that it held 7.7% ownership in the pharmaceutical company.

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The Vanguard Group, however, is Pfizer's largest shareholder, and the post claims its ties to both BlackRock and Microsoft, which Bill Gates co-founded in 1975, are nefarious. Like Soros, Gates is also commonly pulled into unfounded conspiracy theories about the pandemic.

It's true that Vanguard holds shares in BlackRock, Pfizer and Microsoft.

But two decades after Gates' departure from the company as its CEO, his ties to Microsoft are loose. Gates holds just 1.36% of shares in Microsoft, CNBC reported in March, shortly after Gates left the company's board.

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Our rating: False

We rate the claim that a series of links exist between the Wuhan Institute of Virology and companies and figures central to development of a COVID-19 vaccine as FALSE because it was not supported by our research. The primary claim, which sets off the series of links, that the Wuhan Institute of Virology is owned by GlaxoSmithKline is false. That renders the following purported connections meaningless, and many of them are false independently, as well. 

Our fact-check sources:

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Our fact check work is supported in part by a grant from Facebook.