Google isn't blocking searches for the 'lab leak' theory as the coronavirus' origin is being investigated, but it prioritizes 'authoritative' results to avoid leading users to misinformation

·2 min read
Wuhan Institute of Virology lab
The P4 laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan in China's central Hubei province, April 17, 2020. HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images
  • Google's health lead David Feinberg said the firm aims not to lead people to non-authoritative info.

  • That includes on searches for the "lab leak" theory as the coronavirus' origin is investigated.

  • Biden set a 90-day deadline for intelligence officials to report the likely origin of COVID-19.

  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

The head of Google's health division David Feinberg said the company does not auto-complete searches for certain unverified theories to ensure users aren't led "down pathways" to more misinformation.

During the Wall Street Journal's Tech Health conference on June 9, WSJ reporter Jamie Heller said her colleague noticed Google does not autofill searches for "coronavirus lab leak" the way it does for other queries.

a google search for 'coronavirus lab leak' does not autofill
A Google search for 'coronavirus lab leak' does not autofill. Allana Akhtar/Insider

Feinberg responded by saying Google employs a group of clinicians on its Search team and YouTube team to make sure the tech giant isn't "leading people down pathways that we would find to be not authoritative information."

He added users can find whatever they are looking for using Google - including misinformation - but the tech firm aims to ensure the first thing users see is information coming from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, national health systems, and other authorities.

"If you're looking for a conspiracy, you can certainly find it on the internet," Feinberg said during the conference. "We just don't want it to be the first thing that you see."

Read more: Why a top vaccine expert thinks we won't need COVID-19 booster shots for 3 to 5 years

A Google spokesperson told Insider autofill on search queries depend on a variety of factors, including whether the predicted search is common or trending. Google does not have a blanket ban on autocomplete for all search queries related to the Wuhan lab theory, as "lab leak" predicts "lab leak theory" for some users.

"We do have policies around medical misinformation and our systems will avoid showing predictions that may provide information that could lead to serious or acute physical harm," the spokesperson said over email.

The World Health Organization reported the virus that causes COVID-19 likely jumped from bats to people through an intermediary animal host, potentially at a wildlife farm in China. But the AP reported the Chinese government had strictly controlled all research into the origins of the new coronavirus as of December 2020.

Some experts, including David Relman, an immunologist from Stanford University School of Medicine, penned a letter pushing back on the WHO's report and requesting more research into the lab leak theory.

President Joe Biden set a 90-day deadline in late May for US intelligence officials to gather evidence into the origins of the deadly virus.

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