23% of Americans think the coronavirus was created in a Chinese lab, a survey suggests. Here's why that conspiracy theory is bogus.

A laboratory physician at the Chinese Centers for Disease control and Prevention prepares to test a coronavirus specimen in Chongqing, May 3, 2020.Costfoto/Barcroft Media via Getty Images
  • Researchers surveyed people in five countries to assess which coronavirus-related conspiracy theories have taken root.
  • The most popular theory suggests the virus was "bioengineered in a laboratory in Wuhan." Between 22% and 23% of Americans and Britons viewed that as "reliable."
  • The study found that people who are older, numerically savvy, and trust scientists are less likely to fall for coronavirus misinformation.
  • Genetic evidence discredits the theory that the coronavirus was man-made.
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Lingering uncertainty how the coronavirus pandemic started creates fertile territory for conspiracy theories.

About one in four Americans and Britons think the idea that the virus was engineered in a Wuhan laboratory is a "reliable" claim, according to a recent study, despite abundant scientific evidence to the contrary.

The research, published earlier this week in the journal Royal Society for Open Science, found that an even higher portion of respondents in Ireland and Spain — 26% and 33%, respectively — put stock in that theory, as do nearly 40% of survey participants in Mexico.
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"Certain misinformation claims are consistently seen as reliable by substantial sections of the public," Sander van der Linden, a co-author of the new study and a social psychologist at the University of Cambridge, said in a press release.

What's more, people who found the lab conspiracy idea reliable were generally more hesitant about getting a coronavirus vaccine.

"We find a clear link between believing coronavirus conspiracies and hesitancy around any future vaccine," van der Linden added.
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People who trust scientists are less likely to fall for misinformation

Dr. Mustafa Gerek is vaccinated in volunteer in trials of a COVID-19 vaccine from China at Ankara City Hospital in Ankara, Turkey on October 13, 2020.Aytac Unal/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The study authors sent an online survey to groups of 700 people in the US, Mexico, Ireland, and Spain, and to more than 1,000 people in the UK. They asked participants to rate how reliable certain statements about COVID-19 were on a scale of 1 to 7, and also asked about participants' attitudes about a vaccine.

The researchers wanted to assess whether certain beliefs or demographics are correlated with how susceptible a person is to misinformation. The results showed that respondents with "significantly and consistently" low levels of susceptibility to false information in all five countries also declared they trusted scientists and scored highly on a series of tasks designed to test their understanding of probability. Being older was linked to lower susceptibility to misinformation as well, in every country surveyed except Mexico.
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Additionally, those who reported trusting their politicians to effectively tackle the crisis in Mexico, Spain, and the US were more likely to fall for conspiracy theories.

The study also found that respondents in Ireland, the UK, and the US who were exposed to coronavirus information on social media were more susceptible to misinformation.

Van der Linden's team also found that as participants' susceptibility increased, their intent to get vaccinated or recommend the vaccine to friends and family dropped.
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A 15% increase in the degree to which a respondent viewed coronavirus misinformation as reliable, on average, was linked to a 23% decrease in the likelihood they said they'd get vaccinated.

Although the lab conspiracy theory was the most widely believed among those included in the survey, statements that the pandemic was "part of a plot to enforce global vaccination" and that 5G telecommunication towers "exacerbate COVID-19 symptoms" were also popular.

Experts think the coronavirus came from bats

Most experts agree that the new coronavirus, whose clinical name is SARS-CoV-2, jumped from an animal host to humans. Cross-species hops from bats, called spillover events, also led to outbreaks of Ebola and SARS.
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A researcher holding a bat.Benjamin P. Y H. Lee/BMC Ecology Image Competition
Labs around the world have analyzed genetic samples from bat coronaviruses that were circulating prior to the pandemic, and one study found in February that the new coronavirus shares 96% of its genetic code with a coronavirus seen in Chinese bat populations.

Another study revealed an even closer match in May: A 97.1% similarity to a coronavirus called RmYN02 that was found in the bats of China's Yunnan province between May and October 2019.

Research suggests the virus is not a 'laboratory construct'

An illustration of the novel coronavirus.Getty Images
A group of Chinese virologists linked to former Trump strategist Steve Bannon suggested last month that Chinese scientists made the virus using existing bat coronaviruses as a "backbone" or "template."
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One of those virologists, Li-Meng Yan, told Fox News host Tucker Carlson that the virus was "man-made" and "intentionally" released by the Chinese government. But scientific research doesn't support that theory.

A March study published in the journal Nature concluded based on genetic analysis that the new coronavirus wasn't a hodgepodge of existing coronaviruses. That showed it couldn't be a "laboratory construct," or a "purposefully manipulated virus," the study authors wrote. "The genetic data irrefutably show that SARS-CoV-2 is not derived from any previously used virus backbone," they added.
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The virus probably didn't accidentally leak from a lab, either

Another theory suggests that the new coronavirus had animal origins, but that a sample of it collected for prior study accidentally leaked from a lab. Believers of this conspiracy generally point to the Wuhan Institute of Virology as the source of the leak, since scientists there study infectious diseases, including coronaviruses.

The Wuhan Institute of Virology, pictured on April 17, 2020.Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty

There's no evidence, however, that a lab leak occurred there or anywhere else.

"It's highly unlikely this was a lab accident," Jonna Mazet, a US epidemiologist who has worked with and trained researchers at the Wuhan institute, previously told Business Insider.
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Mazet said she helped the staff develop and implement a "very stringent safety protocol."

Shi Zhengli, a virologist at the institute, told Scientific American in April that none of the coronavirus samples stored at the institute matched the new coronavirus' genome.

"That really took a load off my mind," Shi said. "I had not slept a wink for days."
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