Nearly half the population in one of China’s newest diplomatic allies, the Dominican Republic, believes the debunked conspiracy theory that the coronavirus was created in a Wuhan laboratory, according to a survey.
The poll also found that another 25 per cent had not ruled out the possibility that the new virus was man-made – prompting a warning from the researchers on the spread of misinformation.
In the Caribbean island nation, the majority perception is that “Covid-19 emerged from genetic manipulation by scientists within a laboratory in Wuhan, China, whose purpose was to produce a vaccine against HIV, and spread from an accidental escape”, the researchers wrote in a non-peer-reviewed paper posted on preprint server medRxiv.org on Thursday.
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“Our study strongly suggests that more attention needs to be paid to the misinformation regarding the origin of Covid-19 in social media and the news,” said the team led by Lenisse Reyes from the Hospital Jose Maria Cabral y Baez in Santiago.
The survey aimed to evaluate the spread of the conspiracy theory on the origin of the virus, with some 1,200 people taking part across five provinces from June to July.
It found that just 28 per cent of respondents believed the new virus strain – which was first reported in central China – was zoonotic, meaning it had jumped from an animal to humans.
The researchers found that even highly educated people and professionals believed the theory that the virus was made in a lab. They said this went against the popular view that it was mainly less educated people who believed the virus was the result of genetic manipulation by scientists.
As of Thursday, the Dominican Republic had reported more than 117,000 infections and 2,163 deaths from Covid-19.
The nation of over 10 million people switched diplomatic ties from Taipei to Beijing in 2018, a move that prompted the United States to recall its ambassador in protest.
As Beijing seeks to keep relations on track, Chinese ambassador Zhang Run has appealed to Dominicans not to buy into the Wuhan lab conspiracy theory.
In a televised address on October 1, China’s National Day, Zhang said the Dominican Republic government “and all sectors of society” had expressed support for China. But he said there had been “attempts to use the pandemic to discriminate [against], politicise and label [China]”.
He went on to list export agreements that will see Dominican avocados, cigars and other specialty products shipped to the Chinese market of 1.4 billion consumers. Zhang also emphasised growth in bilateral trade volume, exports to China, and Chinese tourists to the Caribbean nation. “China has and will continue to increase assistance to the best of our ability,” he said.
The Chinese embassy in Santo Domingo did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
According to the study, misinformation about the origin of the virus was more than just talk – it was also having an impact on people’s behaviour. Those who believed it came from a Wuhan lab, for instance, were more likely to defy lockdown and social distancing rules.
“These perceptions may also promote distrust in the scientific community,” the researchers said.
They said Dominicans mainly relied on social media or tabloid news outlets for information about the pandemic, meaning they were more likely to come across bogus, unproven claims than factual reports generated by the scientific community or mainstream media.
US President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have fuelled the spread of misinformation by repeatedly claiming that the virus originated in a research laboratory in Wuhan and that it was deliberately spread by China, without providing evidence. These claims have been rejected by the US government’s own health officials including coronavirus adviser Anthony Fauci and Centres for Disease Control and Prevention director Robert Redfield.
It is widely believed that the new strain almost certainly came from an animal such as a bat or pangolin, based on the way other coronaviruses circulate in the wild and are transmitted to humans. But when, where and from which animal it jumped to humans is still unknown.
A life scientist researching the coronavirus in Beijing, who declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue, was not surprised by the survey results in the Dominican Republic.
“The misinformation campaign will go on, and it will reach every remote corner of the world, as long as the identity of the intermediate host remains a mystery,” he said. “In other countries people are even more misled,” he added.
In the US, for instance, less than 30 per cent of people surveyed by the Pew Research Centre in March believed the virus was created in a Wuhan lab. By May, after Trump and Pompeo repeated the conspiracy theory, nearly half of Americans believed the virus was man-made, a YouGov poll found.
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This article Dominican Republic study shows how coronavirus misinformation is spreading first appeared on South China Morning Post