Developing a working Covid-19 vaccine “might not be enough” to end the pandemic unless steps are taken by governments and technology firms to tackle coronavirus misinformation, scientists have warned.
In a study involving five countries, which also includes the UK, scientists have found “a clear link” between Covid-19 conspiracy theories and hesitancy around future coronavirus vaccines.
The research, published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, also found that older people and those who are good with numbers are better at spotting fake coronavirus news.
Dr Sander van der Linden, who is director of the Cambridge Social Decision-Making Lab and one of the authors on the study, said: “Certain misinformation claims are consistently seen as reliable by substantial sections of the public.
“We find a clear link between believing coronavirus conspiracies and hesitancy around any future vaccine.
“As well as flagging false claims, governments and technology companies should explore ways to increase digital media literacy in the population.
“Otherwise, developing a working vaccine might not be enough.”
Scientists from the University of Cambridge looked at survey data from 5,000 people across five countries – the UK, the US, Ireland, Mexico and Spain.
The participants were asked to rate the reliability of several statements, including six popular myths about Covid-19.
While a majority of those surveyed judged the misinformation to be unreliable, the researchers said they found certain conspiracy theories to have taken hold in “significant portions of the population”.
The claim that Covid-19 was engineered in a lab in Wuhan, China, was deemed “reliable” by 22-23% of respondents in the UK and US.
This rose to 26% in Ireland, 36% in Mexico and 37% in Spain, the researchers said.
Meanwhile, 13% of those surveyed in the UK thought the pandemic was a part of a plot to enforce global vaccination, along with 22% in Mexico and 18% in Ireland, Spain and the US.
The 5G conspiracy, which claims that some telecommunication towers are worsening Covid-19 symptoms, was found to hold sway over 16% of the participants in both Mexico and Spain, 12% in Ireland, and 8% in both the UK and US.
The researchers also asked the participants about their attitude to a future coronavirus vaccine.
They found that people who rate Covid-19 conspiracy theories as more reliable are much less likely to say they will get vaccinated.
Meanwhile, scoring highly on numeracy tasks was found to be associated with a lower susceptibility to Covid-19 misinformation.
Dr Jon Roozenbeek, lead author and postdoctoral fellow in Cambridge’s Department of Psychology, said: “Numeracy skills are the most significant predictor of resistance to misinformation that we found.
“We all now deal with a deluge of statistics and R number interpretations.
“The fostering of numerical skills for sifting through online information could well be vital for curbing the ‘infodemic’ and promoting good public health behaviour.”