Infectious Diseases

The Shocking Prevalence of Coronavirus Misconceptions

Posted on 22 July 2020

Months ago, we published an article about conspiracy theories surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. While lacking any supporting evidence, some of the misconceptions underpinning these theories remain surprisingly widespread, according to surveys by the Gapminder Foundation.

In March, they conducted surveys of 2,608 respondents across COVID-19 affected countries including the UK, the USA, Italy, Brazil and Japan. They asked participants 10 questions about the virus, including where they thought it came from and how deadly it was.

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The most shocking result of this survey was that in most of the countries included, 40-50% of respondents believed that the virus was accidentally released from a Chinese lab, despite the absence of any evidence to support this claim. This misconception was most common in Japan, (45% of respondents) and least common in the UK, where just over a quarter of people surveyed believed the virus escaped from a lab. Interestingly, those who believed this were also less likely to take measures to prevent the spread of infection, such as frequent hand washing.

The other major misconception concerned the deadliness of the virus. In March, 24% of people in the UK thought that seasonal flu was deadlier than COVID-19, though there was already plenty of evidence to demonstrate otherwise at that time. As the pandemic progressed, this belief became less common, and currently only 7% of respondents in the UK still think that seasonal flu is deadlier. Once again, people who held this misconception were less likely to say they would follow social distancing and hygiene practices.

Why believing that Chinese labs accidentally released the new coronavirus is bad for public health. (2020). Retrieved 22 July 2020, from

Respondents were also asked if they would take a Covid vaccine today if it were available. Only 5% of people in the UK said that they would not, compared with 16% in US, and 23% in Germany (where vaccine uptake is generally very good). This may be in part due to how effectively the virus was controlled in Germany, possibly leading Germans to think that there was less need for vaccination.Conversely in Brazil, where the virus has claimed over 80 000 lives at the time of writing, only 2% of participants said they would not get vaccinated.

Overall, perhaps the most important lesson to be learned from these findings is that circulating misinformation can have a real effect on public health, and may ultimately cost lives if it is not quickly addressed.

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.

Why believing that Chinese labs accidentally released the new coronavirus is bad for public health. (2020). Retrieved 22 July 2020, from


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

More or Less: Behind the Stats - Covid misconceptions and US deaths:

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