Return to CoronaNet
Global phenomena are often most readily discussed in global terms. In the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, different political and cultural sub-divisions generally agree on unambiguous concepts that lend themselves to quantification. For example, the number of hospital beds available in a given city as compared to another city, or the rate at which patients with a certain set of symptoms are admitted to hospitals. Whether a hospital is located in New York City, Tokyo, or Berlin, medical professionals at these hospitals are equipped with the expertise and a common set of terms and skills to delineate between pneumonia-like symptoms and chickenpox-like symptoms.
Despite these ‘big-picture’ commonalities, global phenomena have intensely local impacts and implications that can be more challenging to discuss. Just as countless factors influence an individual community’s fitness to respond to challenges in public health, different nations and sub-national groups have different capabilities for credibly communicating those challenges to their respective publics. The arrival of COVID-19 has presented every level of every government on the planet with a common set of new problems which are placed atop previously existent tension and crises. Two such antecedent tensions in the United States are the growing public mistrust of institutions that are traditionally responsible for fact-reporting (government, journalism, and academia), as well as a trend toward partisan polarization of both the general public and notable spokespersons for the aforementioned institutions. One way that these tensions have manifested themselves is through the narrative political-charging of COVID-19-related public health information.
This article seeks to explore the topic of COVID-19 misinformation in the U.S. through a credible, well-sourced account of where known facts align with as well as diverge from both popular and fringe narratives. It will also offer some discussion of the role played by authority figures, partisanship, and motivated cognition in the proliferation of COVID-19 misinformation. In doing so, we begin with a brief timeline of what is known and we attempt to capture key moments in the brief but rapid evolution of early COVID-19 misinformation in the U.S. This timeline will chronicle the earliest credible information available, from COVID-19’s origin in late 2019 until the end of April 2020. During this time, U.S. Federal policy appeared to be informed by a piece of COVID-19 misinformation and U.S. cases and deaths approached their first major “spike.” This account is by no means exhaustive, and seeks to examine only a small part of a global and volatile series of events.
November 17, 2019: A 55 year old male resident of Hubei Province in China is the first known individual confirmed to suffer from a pneumonia-like respiratory disease that in a few short weeks would be identified as a novel human coronavirus – a family of viruses first identified in various species of animals in the 1930s, and first observed in humans in the 1960s.1 2 3
November 17 – December 8, 2019: Doctors at Jinyintan Hospital located in Wuhan, Hubei Province documented 41 cases of an infectious respiratory illness, among which common symptoms now associated with COVID-19 began to present on or around December 1, 2019. Their study interviewed patients regarding their recent contacts as well as travels, and found that at least 27 of the first 41 cases had been exposed to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market. However, at the time of this article’s publishing, the ongoing search for a true “patient zero” means that the first case of COVID-19 has not been definitively identified.4
December 24 – 27, 2019: Multiple hospitals throughout Wuhan reported cases of pneumonia-like illnesses without clear causes, but presented strong evidence of human-to-human communicability, which prompted several of these hospitals to submit patient samples of pneumonic fluid to laboratories for further analysis. By this time, it is estimated that approximately 180 cases of COVID-19 had spread throughout Wuhan, though the exact number is impossible to know due to the reality that initial cases of novel diseases tend to precede the ability to test for and track them.5
December 29 – 30, 2019: Of the multiple labs contracted to conduct further analysis on COVID-19 patient samples, BGI Genomics in China was the first to arrive at the independent conclusion that the pneumonia-like respiratory illness was, in fact, a novel coronavirus. Upon learning of these findings, the Wuhan Municipal Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) organized an investigative team. They issued an urgent notice to medical institutions about the emergence of an infectious pneumonia-like disease linked to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, and ordered them to compile statistics on related cases.6
January 24 – 30. 2019: As unconfirmed cases occurred in Texas, California, and Arizona, local news outlets in the U.S. first began covering COVID-19.7 8 9 A student-led petition at Arizona State University to cancel in-person classes marked one of the first instances of national news coverage of COVID-19.10
January 26, 2020: The Washington Times, a solidly conservative-right-leaning Washington DC-based news outlet with a daily circulation of approximately 52,000 readers and over 10,000,000 monthly views, published a sensational article. It speculated that “[t]he deadly animal-borne coronavirus spreading globally may have originated in a laboratory in the city of Wuhan linked to China’s covert biological weapons program. . .”. This sparked widespread recirculation and further unsourced, unfounded speculation by prominent Republican Senator Tom Cotton about COVID-19’s potentially nefarious man-made origins.11 12 13 On the same date, the World Health Organization (WHO) published their 6th situation report. It detailed that 2,014 active cases of COVID-19 were confirmed worldwide, with the vast majority located in China (Figure 1).14
Figure 1 (Credit: WHO)
February 19, 2020: In response to the explosion of conspiracy theories propagated on both traditional and non-traditional media platforms by journalists, celebrities, members of the public, and politicians, a group of 27 prominent scientists from around the world issued a statement condemning and debunking misinformation regarding the origins of COVID-19.15 16
March 25 – 27, 2020: The Washington Times issued an editor’s note on the original article that spawned the Wuhan lab conspiracy theory. It tepidly offered that “the exact origins remain murky.” As this occurred, the WHO published their 67th Situation Report detailing 509,164 global cases of COVID-19, with the three largest shares belonging to China with 82,078 cases, Italy with 80,539 and the U.S. quickly catching up with 68,334 (Figure 2).17