Why believing that Chinese labs accidentally released the new coronavirus is bad for public health

The non-stop flow of information about the new coronavirus pandemic has been accompanied by a similar surge in misinformation. While the coronavirus has brought travel and economic activity to a near standstill in large parts of the world, conspiracy theories and misinformation continue to travel and proliferate at high velocity. How common are misconceptions about COVID-19 (the disease caused by the new coronavirus)? And do they matter to efforts to combat the pandemic?

We conducted surveys of 2,608 respondents between March 14-19 2020 across a range of COVID-19 affected countries: the UK, the USA, Italy, Brazil and Japan using the online tool Google Surveys (more info on methods here). We asked respondents 10 questions about the coronavirus, including how the pathogen initially spread to humans, how deadly the coronavirus is compared to the seasonal flu, and what people can do to reduce the risk of infection. The results suggest that belief in misinformation is widespread globally, with some local variation, and that people who have adopted more misinformation are less likely to take actions to keep themselves and others safe.

As people across the globe are dealing with the sudden reality of life under quarantine, many are seeking answers about the origin of the pandemic. Why did the coronavirus begin to spread among humans? We found that as many as 39% of the 2,608 respondents believed that an (accidental) release of the virus from Chinese labs caused the virus to spread to humans – from 27% in the UK to 45% in Japan. Interestingly, people who believed the rumour were also 60% (95% CI 1.2-2.2) more likely to report that they’re doing nothing to prevent infection with the coronavirus, and less likely to wash their hands more often (Odds Ratio (OR) 0.8 95% CI 0.7-0.9).

While China was struggling to contain the epidemic, some politicians and commentators elsewhere attempted to downplay the public health significance of the novel coronavirus, arguing that the seasonal flu causes more deaths than the coronavirus. At this point in time it is still too early to determine how deadly COVID-19 really is, but so far, data consistently point to the disease being substantially deadlier than the seasonal flu. However, in our sample, 22% of the respondents believed that the seasonal flu was deadlier than the novel coronavirus. This view was most common in the USA (34%) and least common in Italy (14%). Importantly, people who thought that the seasonal flu is deadlier than COVID-19 were also 30% less likely to practice social distancing (OR 0.7 95% CI 0.5-0.8). When asked how many more people they thought would get infected with the coronavirus, the flu-believers thought that additional infections would number in the thousands – a highly optimistic assessment that has already been proven wrong.

There are some common factors uniting believers in seemingly disparate conspiracy theories. Those who believe that Chinese labs caused the pandemic and that the seasonal flu is deadlier are 30% more likely to distrust the news media compared to those who did not believe these misconceptions. And as described above, both beliefs were associated with reduced individual actions that could help curb the pandemic. (Our data is based on cross-sectional surveys, so the associations we see can also be interpreted in the opposite directions, for instance that those not acting to prevent infection are more likely to believe that the virus spread from a Chinese lab.)

On average, 9% of the 2,608 respondents indicated that they did not do anything to prevent infection with the coronavirus. Men were 60% (95% CI 1.2-2.1) more likely than women to say so. Only 3% of the Italian respondents reported taking no actions to reduce infection risk, which is not surprising given that Italy was on nation-wide lockdown during the survey. This presents a stark difference from Brazil, where 17% of respondents said they did not take active measures to prevent infection.

A pandemic presents a strange and discomfiting societal challenge; across large parts of the world, the best action one can take is to follow public health directives such as social distancing. Misconceptions that undermine public health guidance pose real risks, and should be actively targeted. Preventing the spread of rumours can contribute to slowing the spread of the virus. While media companies and social media platforms have a responsibility to help, individual action matters as well. Online social distancing comes down to thinking critically and questioning our assumptions and beliefs before sharing. Digital distancing can also save lives.

Figure 1 Prevalence of misconceptions by country

Table 1 Associations between misconceptions and practices & distrust in news media

Coronavirus accidentally released by Chinese labs The seasonal flu is deadlier than coronavirus
Adjusted* Odds Ratio
(95% CI)
Adjusted* Odds Ratio
(95% CI)
I don’t do anything 1.60 (1.17-2.20) 1.35 (0.92-1.98)
I avoid close contact with others 0.91 (0.76-1.08) 0.67 (0.55-0.83)
I wash my hands more often 0.79 (0.66-0.94) 0.83 (0.65-1.06)
I distrust news media 1.36 (1.10-1.70) 1.28 (1.04-1.58)

*Adjusted for gender, age and survey weights
CI = Confidence Interval

This study was carried out by the Gapminder Foundation in collaboration with Karolinska Institutet and New York University:

Maike Winters, Ben Oppenheim, Anna Rosling Rönnlund, Ola Rosling, Helena Nordenstedt

For more information: [email protected]