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Eight Persistent COVID-19 Myths and Why People Believe Them

○ 1 The virus was engineered in a laboratory in China.

Because the pathogen first emerged in Wuhan, China, President Donald Trump and others have claimed, without evidence, that it started in a lab there, and some conspiracy theorists believe it was engineered as a bioweapon.

Why It’s False: U.S. intelligence agencies have categorically denied the possibility that the virus was engineered in a lab, stating that “the Intelligence Community … concurs with the wide scientific consensus that the COVID-19 virus was not man-made or genetically modified.” Chinese virologist Shi Zhengli—who studies bat coronaviruses and whose lab Trump and others have suggested was the source of COVID-19—compared the pathogen’s sequence with those of other coronaviruses her team had sampled from bat caves and found that it did not match any of them. In response to calls for an independent, international investigation into how the virus originated, China has invited researchers from the World Health Organization to discuss the scope of such a mission.

Why People Believe It: People want a scapegoat for the immense suffering and economic fallout caused by COVID-19, and China—a foreign country and a competitor of the U.S.—is an easy target. Accidental lab releases of pathogens do sometimes occur, and although many scientists say this possibility is unlikely, it provides just enough legitimacy to support a narrative in which China intentionally engineered the virus to unleash it on the world.

○ 2 COVID-19 is no worse than the flu.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Trump has lied about the disease’s severity, saying it is no more dangerous than seasonal influenza. Trump himself admitted to journalist and author Bob Woodward in recorded interviews in early February and late March that he knew COVID-19 was more deadly than the flu and that he wanted to play down its severity.

Why It’s False: The precise infection fatality rate of COVID-19 is hard to measure, but epidemiologists suspect that it is far higher than that of the flu—somewhere between 0.5 and 1 percent, compared with 0.1 percent for influenza. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the latter causes roughly 12,000 to 61,000 deaths per year in the U.S. In contrast, COVID-19 had caused 200,000 deaths in the country as of mid-September. Many people also have partial immunity to the flu because of vaccination or prior infection, whereas most of the world has not yet encountered COVID-19. So no, coronavirus is not “just the flu.”

Why People Believe It: Their leaders keep saying it. In addition to his repeated false claims that COVID-19 is no worse than the flu, Trump has also said—falsely—that the numbers of deaths from COVID-19 are exaggerated. In fact, reported deaths from COVID-19 are likely an undercount.

○ 3 You don’t need to wear a mask.

Despite a strong consensus among public health authorities that masks limit transmission of coronavirus, many people (the president included) have refused to wear one. Georgia’s governor Brian Kemp went so far as to sign an executive order banning