White Coat, Black Art·The Dose

Why does a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic give rise to conspiracy theories?

The Dose and Dr. Brian Goldman separate fact from fiction regarding the rumour that COVID-19 spread to humans after it escaped from a lab in China.

The Dose and Dr. Brian Goldman separate fact from fiction

Jason Kindrachuk, an assistant professor and Canada Research Chair in the department of medical microbiology and infectious diseases at the University of Manitoba, said it’s highly improbable the novel coronavirus comes from a lab. (Danielle Da Silva)

The question of how COVID-19 spreads to humans has been circulating widely in recent weeks.

One theory making the rounds is that the deadly virus originated from a lab in China and either escaped in error or was intentionally released. 

That theory gained steam when U.S.  President Donald Trump validated the idea by saying China could face consequences if it is "knowingly responsible." 

The Wuhan Institute of Virology has dismissed those rumours, and some high-ranking Chinese government officials clapped back with their own accusations against the U.S.

Zhao Lijian, spokesperson and deputy director general, Information Department for the Foreign Ministry of China, tweeted that "it might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan."

  

The World Health Organization has said the best available evidence suggests the virus most likely originated in an animal, and not in a lab. 

Likewise, a study published in the journal Nature last month showed that the virus was not created in a lab or purposely manipulated in some other way.

Jason Kindrachuk, an assistant professor and Canada Research Chair in the department of medical microbiology and infectious diseases at the University of Manitoba, said it's highly improbable the virus comes from a lab.

He told Dr. Brian Goldman on the CBC podcast The Dose that while it's theoretically possible for an exposure to originate in a lab, the best evidence so far suggests this coronavirus is a variant of ones we've seen before and likely has links to animal carriers.

Within a week of when the first cluster of atypical pneumonia cases were noticed in Wuhan, experts were able to do genomic sequencing of the virus, said Kindrachuk.

"And what they were able to show very quickly was that this virus shared similarity with the original SARS coronavirus. But it also shared a really high similarity, about 96 per cent similarity, with a bat coronavirus."

That level of similarity is considered quite powerful evidence of where the virus likely came from, he said.

Accidental exposure stemming from a lab setting is possible and has some precedence in the past, he said. "During the original SARS epidemic, there were a couple of accidental exposures in laboratories that resulted in people getting infected in Beijing."

The patients were hospitalized and their cases were published.

County ambulance paramedic Jennifer Sommers performs a swab test for COVID-19 on a staff member at a BFAIR shared living home in Pittsfield, Mass., April 21. Kindrachuk said China has been a convenient scapegoat to help take focus away from criticism about things like a slow rollout of testing in the U.S. (Stephanie Zollshan/The Berkshire Eagle via AP)

So while it's hard to prove with 100 per cent certainty that accidental lab exposure isn't to blame, it's highly unlikely.

In any event, Kindrachuk said the idea that someone created the virus with the aim of intentionally spreading it is easier to rule out.

"I think we can disprove in relatively straightforward fashion, that this was not an engineered virus. I think that [mathematicians] have done an excellent job of doing that over the past few months that we've had sequence information."

Asked where he thinks this kind of myth springs from, Kindrachuk said there could be political convenience in pointing the finger at another nation.

"It's an easy way to take focus off of some of the situation that we've seen, in the U.S. in particular, with the lack of testing, or ... the response of the White House. And I think that we've seen China become an easy scapegoat, in that sense."

We need to be focused on how to combat this virus, not how to combat misinformation.- Jason Kindrachuk, assistant professor of infectious diseases, University of Manitoba

Trump waded into scientifically questionable territory again recently when he hypothesized during a press briefing that some combination of ingesting disinfectants or ultraviolet light therapy could help treat COVID-19.

As a result, scientists waste time correcting the record that could be spent on research instead, said Kindrachuk.

"We need to be focused on how to combat this virus, not how to combat misinformation."

A health-care worker screens people in their vehicle at a COVID-19 test clinic in Montreal on March 30. Jonathan Jarry, a science communicator with the McGill Office of Science and Society, said it's unsurprising that some people will look for something to blame in a crisis where they feel so powerless. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Jonathan Jarry, a science communicator with the McGill Office of Science and Society, an organization that works to dispel pseudoscientific myths and demystify science for the public, said he's not surprised that coronavirus conspiracy theories are circulating.

"When we're talking about a situation where people feel powerless — like in the case of a virus that we can't see and that is really immobilizing us and changing the way in which we live our lives  — people will look for something to blame. It's a way of feeling more empowered."

He said there's also evolutionary roots to some of this blame game. It was good for our survival early on to assume a rustling in the bushes is a predator, and not just a gust of wind.

We assign intention — or agency — to the unseen force, assuming there's "some agent there that wishes me harm," said Jarry.

Practising 'information hygiene'

It may sit better with people to think the pandemic is somebody's fault, rather than to accept that it's a random event that can occur and may occur again.

"It's a lot harder to wrap your head around the idea that a version of the virus was circulating in bats and it mutated randomly and it became very good at infecting humans, even though that's what the best scientific evidence is showing right now. It's not as easy to come to terms with."

His advice is to think twice before sharing articles or other information online that may contribute to myth-making. If a headline is frightening or surprising, or if the promised miracle cure seems too good to be true, consider whether the source is trustworthy before hitting the share button.

"Just like we're enacting hygiene measures to counteract the spread of the virus — we're washing our hands, we're keeping our distances, we're disinfecting common surfaces — we also need to enact information hygiene measures. This was true before the pandemic, but it is even more true now."


Written by Brandie Weikle. Jason Kindrachuk interview produced by Arianne Robinson and Dawna Dingwall.
 

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