Did China create Covid-19 in Wuhan lab? Nearly 23% in US and UK still believe unproven conspiracy theory

Higher susceptibility to fake news was associated with lower likelihood of people willing to get vaccinated against coronavirus

                            Did China create Covid-19 in Wuhan lab? Nearly 23% in US and UK still believe unproven conspiracy theory
(Getty Images)

Misinformation about Covid-19 is a major threat to public health, according to experts. False and misleading information about the virus, how it spreads, how to cure it, and who is "behind" it had earlier prompted the World Health Organization (WHO) to warn of an ongoing "infodemic".

Now, researchers who analyzed beliefs and attitudes toward coronavirus in five countries — the US, the UK, Ireland, Mexico, and Spain — have identified how much traction some prominent conspiracy theories have within these populations.

According to authors, the conspiracy considered most valid across the board was the claim that Covid-19 was engineered in a Wuhan laboratory. Between 22-23% of respondents in the US and the UK rated this assertion as "reliable". In Ireland, this increased to 26%, while in Mexico and Spain, it jumped to 33% and 37% respectively.

Scientists have, however, repeatedly dismissed claims that Covid-19 was made in a laboratory or otherwise engineered. In March, a study concluded that Covid-19 is of natural evolution.

This was followed by the idea that the pandemic is "part of a plot to enforce global vaccination," with 22% of the Mexican population rating this as reliable, along with 18% in Ireland, Spain and the US, and 13% in the UK. The 5G conspiracy — that some telecommunication towers are worsening coronavirus symptoms — holds sway over smaller but still significant segments: 16% in Mexico, 16% in Spain, 12% in Ireland, and 8% in both the UK and US. 

"Certain misinformation claims are consistently seen as reliable by substantial sections of the public. We find a clear link between believing coronavirus conspiracies and hesitancy around any future vaccine. As well as flagging false claims, governments and technology companies should explore ways to increase digital media literacy in the population. Otherwise, developing a working vaccine might not be enough," writes Dr Sander van der Linden, co-author and director of the Cambridge Social Decision-Making Lab, in the study published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

The study used six national surveys in the US (700 people), Spain (700), Ireland (700) and Mexico (700), and two separate surveys in the UK (1,050 and 1,150).

Scientists from the University of Cambridge gathered data from national samples in each country and asked participants to rate the reliability of several statements, including some popular myths about Covid-19. They looked at correlations between certain beliefs and demographic categories and the perceived reliability of misinformation.

The findings

While a large majority of people in all five nations judged the misinformation to be unreliable, the team found that certain conspiracy theories have taken root in significant portions of the population. The results reveal "key predictors" for susceptibility to fake pandemic news and finds that a small increase in the perceived reliability of conspiracies equates to a larger drop in the intention to get vaccinated. 

The analysis shows that 22% in Mexico, 18% in Ireland, Spain and the US, and 13% in the UK think that the pandemic is part of a plot to enforce global vaccination (Getty Images)

Researchers asked participants about their attitude to a future coronavirus vaccine. They were also asked to rate the reliability of conspiratorial Covid-19 claims on a scale of one to seven. On average, an increase by one-seventh in someone's perceived reliability of misinformation is associated with a drop of almost a quarter — 23% — in the likelihood they will agree to get vaccinated.

Similarly, a one-point increase on the conspiracy reliability scale is linked, on average, to a 28% decrease in the odds of someone recommending vaccination to vulnerable friends and family.

Conversely, on average, a one-seventh increase in trust in scientists is associated with a 73% increase in the likelihood of getting vaccinated and a 79% increase in the odds of recommending vaccination to others. The researchers controlled for many other factors, from age to politics, when modeling levels of vaccine hesitancy and found the results to be consistent across all countries except Spain.

Overall, higher trust in scientists is associated with lower belief in misinformation in all countries. The authors say that this highlights not just the critical role that scientists play in combating the virus, but also the importance of communicating scientific research to the public.

"This is especially important in light of the finding that higher trust in scientists is also associated with a higher willingness to get vaccinated against coronavirus or to recommend vaccination to vulnerable friends and family as well as compliance with health guidance measures. These results demonstrate a clear link between susceptibility to misinformation and both vaccine hesitancy and a reduced likelihood to comply with health guidance measures, and suggest that interventions, which aim to improve critical thinking and trust in science, may be a promising avenue for future research," the findings state.
Among other findings, the analysis reveals that being older is linked to lower susceptibility to Covid-19 misinformation in all nations except Mexico, where the opposite is true. Identifying as more right-wing or politically conservative is associated with higher likelihood of believing Covid-19 conspiracies and falsehoods in Ireland, Mexico and Spain, but less so in the UK or US.
Again, trusting that politicians can effectively tackle the crisis predicts a higher likelihood of buying into conspiracies in Mexico, Spain and the US but not in the UK and Ireland. Exposure to information about the virus on social media is linked to misinformation susceptibility in Ireland, the UK and the US.

The team also says that scoring highly on a series of numeracy tasks given as part of the study, as well as declaring high levels of trust in scientists, are "significantly and consistently" associated with low levels of susceptibility to false information across all nations.

"Numeracy skills are the most significant predictor of resistance to misinformation that we found. We all now deal with a deluge of statistics. The fostering of numerical skills for sifting through online information could well be vital for curbing the 'infodemic' and promoting good public health behavior," suggests Dr Jon Roozenbeek, lead author and postdoctoral fellow in Cambridge's Department of Psychology.

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