3.1. Survey Results
Our findings show that more than half of total respondents (53%) reported that they believe COVID-19 originated in the United States (see Figure 1
, pie chart). This is compared to only 17% of respondents who reported they believe the virus originated in China, 19% who reported that they did not know where it originated, and 10% who reported it originated in Europe.
In addition to where
COVID-19 first emerged, the survey also asked how
the virus emerged—whether through laboratories, wet markets, animal farms, natural causes, or imported frozen foods (the “cold chain” hypothesis). Respondents were allowed to select as many sources as they thought applicable, with many respondents selecting more than one. Our findings here point to a diversity of COVID-19 origin stories (Figure 1
, bar charts). Perceived origin sources, however, differ according to perceived origin regions. Of those respondents who indicated China as the most likely origin (162), the majority (75.3%) selected wet markets as an origin source. Of those respondents who indicated the United States as the most likely origin (515), the majority (51.1%) selected laboratories as an origin source. When looking at the total sample, 27% of total respondents reported both the United States as the source country and laboratory or research as a likely source, indicating they believe the virus came from a lab in the United States, compared to less than 1% who reported both China and laboratory activities as a likely source.
Those respondents who indicated Europe as the most likely origin (a total of 101) also reported somewhat different likely sources. Of this group, 72.3% selected wild animals in wet markets (despite the fact that, as with the US, few such markets in Europe exist) and 60.4% selected imported frozen foods (likely suggesting that these respondents identified Europe as the initial source of the virus and frozen foods as the vehicle through which it was transmitted into China). Natural causes (40.6%) and laboratory or research (9.9%) were less commonly selected among this group as a likely source.
We ran binary logistic regression models to determine how believed origin region (China, United States, Europe, etc.) influenced the odds of believing that COVID-19 originated from a particular source (wet markets, wild animal farms, laboratories, etc.) (Table 3
). We also analyzed the predicted probability changes of reporting initial sources of COVID-19 according to perceived origin locations and demographic characteristics (Table 4
). We found that, compared to the baseline group of respondents selecting China as the origin, respondents who select the United States have much greater odds of selecting laboratory or research and imported frozen foods as a likely source, while these respondents have reduced odds of selecting wild animals in a wet market or natural causes. Selecting the United States as the origin region increases the probability of selecting imported frozen foods and laboratory or research as the origin source by 25.4% and 46.2%, respectively, while it decreases the probability of selecting wild animals in a wet market and natural causes as an origin source by 39.1% and 24.5%, respectively.
Respondents selecting Europe as the origin region demonstrate similar trends. These respondents have greater odds of selecting imported frozen foods than the baseline group (even more than respondents selecting the United States) and greater odds of selecting laboratory or research (although not as great as respondents selecting the United States) compared to the baseline group. They also have slightly greater odds of selecting wild animal farms. Lastly, they also have reduced odds of selecting wild animals in a wet market and natural causes (although the effect is not as large as for respondents selecting the United States). Selecting Europe as the origin region increases the probability of selecting imported frozen foods and laboratory or research as the origin source by 41.3% and 9.2%, respectively, while it decreases the probability of selecting wild animals in a wet market and natural causes as the origin source by 15.6% and 15.0%, respectively.
Within these models, there were numerous significant demographic effects. We found that older respondents (40+) and urban residents have greater odds of selecting imported frozen foods as a source, with the effect intensifying with age. Older respondents (50+) have higher odds of selecting wild animals in a wet market and wild animal farms. Compared to the 20~29 age group, being in the eldest respondents (70+) category increased the probability of perceiving imported frozen foods as an origin source by 62.1%. Male respondents have reduced odds of selecting wet markets and wild animal farms as the source, with a decreased probability of selecting these as an origin source by 8.3% and 12.2%, respectively. Income also has an influence: mid-to-low-income respondents (under CNY 20,000) have increased odds of selecting laboratory or research and increased odds of selecting that they do not know. Being in the income category of CNY 10,000 to 20,000 increases the probability of selecting laboratory or research as an origin source by 15.3%. In contrast, respondents in these income ranges have reduced odds of selecting wild animals in a wet market, wild animal farms, and natural causes. Being in the income category of CNY 1000 to 5000 decreases the probability of selecting wild animal farms as an origin source by 49.5%. Lastly, education has some influence, with respondents with a high school degree or below having increased odds of selecting wild animal farms as a source. Compared to respondents with a college degree, being in these categories increases the probability of selecting wild animal farms as an origin source by 11.0% and 26.9%, respectively.
Next, we used a multinomial logistic regression model to determine the odds of reporting different origin regions (China, United States, Europe, etc.) according to demographic variables (Table 5
), along with the predicted probability changes (Table 6
). We found that age is a significant factor. Older respondents (60–79) have increased odds of considering Europe an origin (increase in probability by 17.5%), and the eldest respondents (70–79) have decreased odds of considering the United States an origin (decrease in probability by 33.2%). Income also has some influence; mid-income respondents (CNY 5000–20,000) had decreased odds of considering the United States or Europe as the origin. Being in the CNY 10,000 to 20,000 income category (compared to the over CNY 20,000 income group) increases the probability of selecting China as the region origin by 10.0% and Europe by 9.4%. Being in the CNY 5000 to 10,000 income category increases the probability of selecting China as the region origin by 9.2%, while decreasing the probability of selecting the United States by 15.6%.
The survey also asked if respondents changed their mind about the origins of COVID-19 within the past year. Approximately 42% of respondents indicated that they had changed their minds, with various sources of information contributing to this opinion change (Figure 2
). National news reports were the most frequently cited attributing factor (59.8% of respondents indicating a change in opinion listed this as a contributing factor), followed by social media (45.9%), scientific reports (44.4%), the WHO investigation (42%), talking with friends and family (31.9%), and other unlisted reasons (0.3%).
Our final binary logistic regression model was used to determine which demographic characteristics influenced the odds of whether participants changed their minds about where COVID-19 originated (Table 5
, last column), along with the predicted probability change (Table 6
, last column). We found that male respondents have lower odds of changing their minds about where the virus originated than female respondents; mid-income respondents (CNY 5000–10,000) also have reduced odds of changing their minds than high-income respondents (over CNY 20,000); and respondents with a graduate degree and middle school education or below have reduced odds of changing their mind compared to those with college degrees.
Lastly, the survey asked respondents about measures they thought to be effective in preventing the emergence and spread of infectious diseases such as COVID-19. Again, respondents could select more than one response. The most frequently selected preventative method was monitoring and restricting imported products (78.3%), followed by regulations governing wild animal farms (76.0%), regulations governing wet markets (75.4%), regulations governing the wildlife trade (69.8%), and regulating virology research (61.7%) (Figure 3
). Surprisingly, the least selected measure was investments in public health, although this was still selected by more than half of respondents (58.4%).
Overall, these results show that respondents believe COVID-19 first emerged through a diversity of different pathways, either in China or abroad. Although most report the United States as the initial location where the virus first emerged (52.9%), almost as many (47.1%) report another location or that they do not know. There is thus no overwhelming consensus on COVID-19 origins either in terms of where or how the virus first emerged and respondents generally support a diverse range of policy interventions to prevent the emergence of infectious diseases such as COVID-19.
3.2. Media Analysis
Our media analysis provides more context for understanding and interpreting the survey results. The graph at the bottom of Figure 4
demonstrates the frequency of various origin stories in reporting cycles in China since the first detected case in December 2019. The figure illustrates a clear transition from a strong focus on wildlife reporting at the outset of the outbreak to a focus on cold-chain transmission in November 2020 to January 2021, and then transitioning again to a focus on the potential of a lab leak in the summer of 2021.
This trajectory follows certain media events, noted at the top of the figure. Specifically, politicization surrounding the virus began to intensify in March 2020, when US President Trump referred to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus” in a tweet and Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian tweeted that COVID-19 may be linked to the US Army’s participation in the Military World Games held in Wuhan in October 2019 [32
]. In the same month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo shared a heated phone call with a top Chinese diplomat, Yang Jiechi, in which Pompeo criticized Yang for spreading “disinformation and outlandish rumors.” Yang countered that the United States has denigrated China and “aroused the strong indignation of the Chinese people” [33
]. Then, in April 2020, for the first time ever, a US state (Missouri) sued the Chinese government over economic losses tied to COVID-19 [34
]. With this, the virus became associated with a rise in prejudice and xenophobia [35
This initial series of political provocations was followed by a number of reports of COVID-19 entering China via frozen imported meats and the head of the Chinese Center for Disease Control, Gao Fu, publicly asserting that COVID-19 existed “long before” it was found in Wuhan [36
]. Reports of COVID-19 potentially being present in Europe as early as November 2019 further muddied the waters and fueled hypotheses that the virus first originated outside of Chinese borders [9
]. Meanwhile, the Biden Administration’s May 26 order for a 90-day intelligence inquiry into the virus origins (including the potential that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was the site of initial human transmission) shifted attention toward the lab leak hypothesis, contributing to a tense political atmosphere. As the investigation concluded in August 2021, yielding no definitive evidence except confirmation that the virus was not “weaponized” and unlikely to be engineered [13
], political tensions between the United States and China were at an all-time high.