Researchers say belief in conspiracy theories poses barrier to controlling the spread of COVID-19

TORONTO — As scientists around the world race to create a vaccine for the novel coronavirus, some researchers predict that belief in conspiracy theories could hinder the uptake of a safe vaccine once it becomes publicly available.

A new study published today in the journal Social Science & Medicine found that conspiracy theories regarding COVID-19 have been persistent from March to July and are associated with the reluctance to adopt preventive behaviours, such as mask-wearing and vaccination in the future.

“Belief in pandemic conspiracy theories appears to be an obstacle to minimizing the spread of COVID-19,” said Dan Romer, research director at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center in a statement.

“To control the pandemic we need high rates of mask-wearing, physical distancing, and hand-washing now – and of vaccination when a safe and effective vaccine is available.”

Researchers found the most common COVID-19-related conspiracies had to do with three main issues: the perceived threat of the pandemic, taking preventive actions (such as mask wearing) and the safety of vaccines.

Based on a survey of 840 U.S. adults, researchers found that 28 per cent of survey participants reported believing in March that the Chinese government created the coronavirus as a bioweapon. By July the number of people who believed that conspiracy theory increased to 37 per cent. The study also found that nearly one in seven participants believed that the pharmaceuticals industry created the virus to increase the sale of drugs and vaccines.

In a White House briefing on April 30, U.S. President Donald Trump promoted the idea that COVID-19 accidentally escaped from a lab in Wuhan, China. Experts have said there is no evidence to support this claim and Chinese officials have vehemently rebuked the allegation.

Researchers say they were able to predict the use of face masks among participants based on political ideology and “conservative media reliance,” however when it came to vaccinations there was a wide range of responses, indicating that vaccines are more of a bipartisan concern.

Believers of COVID-19 conspiracies were also more likely to have doubts about the safety of the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine.

“Conspiracy theories are difficult to displace because they provide explanations for events that are not fully understood, such as the current pandemic, play on people’s distrust of government and other powerful actors, and involve accusations that cannot be easily fact-checked,” co-researcher Kathleen Hall Jamieson said in a statement.

The study suggests that those who did not believe in the conspiracies were 1.5 times more likely to wear a face mask every day outside of the home when in contact with others compared to those who most strongly believed in the conspiracies.

Researchers say that counteracting the effects of conspiracy beliefs will require persistent public health campaigns and straightforward messaging particularly on platforms where COVID-related conspiracies have flourished. 

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