'If we can develop a coronavirus vaccine that is produced by the world, for the whole world, this will be a unique global public good of the 21st Century,' global political leaders announced earlier this month, pledging £6.5 billion to help fund research. Oxford, of course, is at the forefront of that effort. But there is reason to fear that, even when we have a vaccine, significant numbers of people may be reluctant to take it.

Our survey of 2500 English adults shows that conspiracy beliefs about coronavirus are disconcertingly prevalent. If it was once possible to dismiss as the fantasy of a credulous minority the idea that the moon landing was faked or that Princess Diana was assassinated by Mossad, the times have well and truly changed. Conspiracy theories, it seems, have gone mainstream.

More than half of the people we spoke to, for example, were at least somewhat mistrustful of advice from scientific experts. Over 40 percent were sympathetic to the idea that COVID-19 is being deliberately spread in order to reduce the world’s population. A similar proportion thought lockdown might be a ruse to impose mass surveillance. The idea that the mainstream media is deliberately feeding us misinformation about the virus and lockdown was dismissed by just 55 percent of our respondents. There is, clearly, a great deal of mistrust out there.

Attitudes to vaccination were similarly worrying. Around 16 percent of people in our survey believed, at least to some extent, that vaccination safety data are often fabricated; that the authorities are covering up the harm that immunisation can cause children; and that the government is hiding a link between vaccination and autism. Another 20-25 percent of respondents were neutral in their opinion, which means that only around two thirds of people rejected these conspiracy beliefs. Thirty percent thought that the search for a coronavirus vaccine is probably unnecessary: we already have a vaccine but the World Health Organisation is withholding it.

Other highly dubious theories found significant numbers of supporters. Was the virus created by Jews in order to destroy the global economy? One in five people thought that was possible. Is Bill Gates behind it all? Again, 20 percent did not dismiss the idea. A quarter of respondents were receptive to the idea that the virus had been manufactured by the United Nations and WHO in order to take control.

It is surely right to question what we are told. Rather than passively accepting perceived wisdom, we should seek out and assess the evidence. But what our survey seems to capture is a fractured society, a community divided into those who broadly accept the scientific evidence -- complex and contested though that evidence is -- and those whose scepticism places them on the margins of that community. In fact, their marginality is likely to be reflected in other ways too. Research has indicated that conspiracy beliefs are more common in people who are socially disadvantaged.

Such evidence of social corrosion is disturbing enough, but its seriousness is compounded by the current crisis. Containing coronavirus requires public buy-in. Yet our survey suggests that those people who are inclined to disbelieve the official line on the virus are also much less likely to follow public health guidelines such as staying at home, not meeting with numerous people outside their household, or keeping 2m apart from other people when outside. They’re also reluctant to accept a vaccination, take a diagnostic test, or wear a face mask. The frightening implications of such non-compliance should give us all pause for thought. 

Unsurprisingly, the COVID-sceptics in our survey tended to be generally distrustful.  They were, for example, unconvinced by the scientific consensus on climate change and wary of vaccination in general. This bears out previous research: people don’t usually support just one conspiracy theory. Instead they’re likely to hold many such beliefs -- some of them contradictory. There is little doubt, however, that the COVID pandemic is in many ways the perfect crucible in which to fashion a new set of conspiracy theories. Such beliefs thrive on feelings of vulnerability, uncertainty, and fear and of course the virus, invisible and deadly, has turned lives upside down. Governments have imposed restrictions that are unprecedented for most people. Isolated at home, with spare time plentiful, the echo chamber of the Internet may be hard to resist.

Whether or not conspiracy beliefs are more common today isn’t known: the historical data aren’t there. But what is certain is that social media has made it much easier to communicate this type of view. And, among our survey respondents at least, those who are receptive to conspiracy theories don’t keep their opinions to themselves: they share them, faster and further than ever before. (We can gauge the scale of the problem by the response of Twitter and Facebook, who have pledged to remove 'harmful' content about the pandemic.)  Needless to say, combatting conspiracy theories is made all the more difficult when, for example, Mike Pompeo announces that COVID originated in a Chinese laboratory, Donald Trump promotes unproven treatments, and Jair Bolsanoro advises Brazilians to 'face it like... men, not kids. We’ll all die one day.'

Back in February, when the global death toll from coronavirus had yet to reach one thousand and cases were virtually unknown outside China, WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned: 'People must have access to accurate information to protect themselves and others. At the World Health Organisation we're not just battling the virus, we're also battling the trolls and conspiracy theories that undermine our response. Misinformation on the coronavirus might be the most contagious thing about it.'

The success of our response to COVID-19, including deployment of a vaccine, will depend in large part on our success in dealing with this other contagion. And when the public inquiries begin, we must ensure they address the question of why so many people in England seem prepared to listen to rumour and reject evidence -- even at the risk of their own lives.

Article by Daniel Freeman and Jason Freeman

This research project is funded by the NIHR Oxford Health Biomedical Research Centre.

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