Map showing coronavirus cases in china
Global, Public Health

Making sense of the numbers and facts around COVID-19

February 21, 2020 |2:22 min read

Misinformation adds to confusion about spread of coronavirus

It’s challenging to get a handle on the numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths, as John Paulos, a mathematician, wrote Feb. 18 in The New York Times. There are many reasons for this.

Not all cases are pathologically diagnosed, so there is some subjectivity in deciding whether or not to classify potential cases as COVID-19. Some people die with co-morbid conditions that may be the actual cause of death. In a country in which people could be jailed for breaking quarantine and for other behaviors, some people with exposures and/or symptoms may choose not to be counted; people tested without pathological confirmation may be categorized incorrectly and, depending on when people are tested, they may get a false negative test result. Countries may have political reasons to undercount deaths and/or cases. For all these reasons and more, Paulos suggests, up-to-the-minute reports and statistics can unintentionally distort the facts.

Meanwhile, some people are spreading false information via the internet. This has been a problem for many health conditions, diseases and vaccines. It is particularly dangerous for epidemics, because misinformation can spread virally as the disease spreads, increasing threats by reducing the number of people who take recommended actions to contain the epidemic.

One common but dangerous kind of misinformation involves a conspiracy notion of how the new coronavirus became a threat, as discussed in Science magazine. In a statement addressed to the science and health professionals of China and elsewhere, published online by The Lancet, a group of 27 scientists from nine countries outside of China wrote:

The rapid, open, and transparent sharing of data on this outbreak is now being threatened by rumours and misinformation around its origins. We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin. Scientists from multiple countries have published and analysed genomes of the causative agent, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2),1 and they overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife,2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 as have so many other emerging pathogens.11 12  This is further supported by a letter from the presidents of the US National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine13 and by the scientific communities they represent. Conspiracy theories do nothing but create fear, rumours, and prejudice that jeopardise our global collaboration in the fight against this virus. We support the call from the Director-General of WHO to promote scientific evidence and unity over misinformation and conjecture.14 We want you, the science and health professionals of China, to know that we stand with you in your fight against this virus.

We invite others to join us in supporting the scientists, public health professionals, and medical professionals of Wuhan and across China. Stand with our colleagues on the frontline!

We speak in one voice. To add your support for this statement, sign our letter online.

Now more than ever, it’s imperative that we actively educate the public to reject misinformation and support best practices around communicating public health information. The stakes are high,  and actions set precedents for dealing with future threats.

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The views expressed in this blog are Barbara Rimer’s alone and do not represent the views and policies of The University of North Carolina or the Gillings School.