One in four Britons think the coronavirus was “probably created in a lab”, research suggests.
Scientists from King’s College London asked more than 2,000 people what they believed to be true about the somewhat mysterious strain.
A quarter (25%) of those surveyed thought the coronavirus is probably man-made, a conspiracy theory circulating the internet.
Early research suggests the infection is mild in four out of five cases, however, it can trigger a respiratory disease called COVID-19.
Coronavirus: ‘Many believe false claims’ about where it came from
The King’s scientists surveyed 2,250 people aged between 18 and 75.
Of the participants who thought the coronavirus was “probably created in a lab”, 12% admitted to meeting up with friends during the UK’s lockdown.
This is more than double the 5% of participants who socialised with loved ones, but were convinced of the strain’s natural origin.
Latest coronavirus news, updates and advice
Boris Johnson has enforced draconian measures that only allow Britons to leave their home for “very limited purposes”, like exercising or shopping for essentials.
The prime minister, who is in intensive care with coronavirus complications, has repeatedly stressed people are not to socialise with those outside of their home.
Nearly a quarter (24%) of the King’s participants who believed the coronavirus was probably manufactured thought too much of a fuss is being made about the pandemic.
This is compared to one in 10 (10%) of those who believed the strain is natural.
Emerging at the end of last year, only the relatively small number of people worldwide who have encountered the virus are thought to have immunity against it.
The race is on to develop a vaccine that will enable herd immunity, allowing the public to safely go back to their normal routine.
The survey participants who thought a jab will be available within three months were nearly four times as likely to have met up with friends during the lockdown than those of the opinion a vaccine will take longer.
Numerous pharmaceutical companies around the world are working to develop a jab, however, scientists have been upfront one will not be ready for this outbreak.
A vaccine may become available, however, if the infection turns out to be seasonal.
“People have generally got the message about how serious the threat from the virus is and the importance of the measures being required of them,” said study author Professor Bobby Duffy.
“But at a time when the government is warning it may bring in more severe restrictions if enough people don’t follow the rules, this research shows there is a significant minority who are unclear on what some of them are, as well as many who still misjudge the scale of the threat from coronavirus or believe false claims about it.
“And this matters – how we see current realities and the future is often related to how we strictly we follow the guidelines and our attitudes to the lockdown measures”.
Coronavirus: Evidence it is not man-made
The coronavirus is thought to have emerged at a seafood and live animal market in the Chinese city Wuhan, capital of Hubei province, at the end of 2019.
The market is said to have sold a range of dead and alive animals, including bats, donkeys, poultry and hedgehogs.
Most of those who initially became unwell at the start of the outbreak worked at, or visited, the Wuhan market.
This has led scientists to believe the new coronavirus “jumped” from an animal into a human while the two were in close contact.
The coronavirus is one of seven strains of a class of viruses that are known to infect humans.
Another strain is severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars), which killed 774 people during its 2002/3 outbreak.
Sars is thought to have started in bats and jumped into humans via masked palm civets.
Research suggests the new coronavirus shares more than 96% of its DNA with a strain detected in horseshoe bats and may have reached humans via pangolins.
Despite the evidence, conspiracy theories have arisen suggesting the strain could have been engineered.
To debunk this, scientists from Scripps Research in San Diego analysed the DNA of the virus and others like it.
They specifically looked at proteins on the surface of the viruses that allow them to enter human cells.
Results suggested the coronavirus evolved to target a receptor on human cells called ACE2.
This targeting is so effective, the scientists concluded it was the result of natural selection and not genetic engineering.
The coronavirus’ genetic “backbone” is also distinct from other pathogens. The scientists argued if one were to manufacture a disease, they would work off a backbone that is known to cause ill health.
“By comparing the available genome sequence data for known coronavirus strains, we can firmly determine that [the new strain] originated through natural processes,” said study author Dr Kristian Andersen.
What is the coronavirus?
Since the coronavirus outbreak was identified, more than 1.5 million cases have been confirmed worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Of these cases, over 339,700 are known to have “recovered”.
Globally, the death toll has exceeded 89,900.
The coronavirus mainly spreads face-to-face via infected droplets expelled in a cough and sneeze.
Although most cases are mild, pneumonia can come about if the coronavirus spreads to the air sacs in the lungs.
This causes them to become inflamed and filled with fluid or pus.
The lungs then struggle to draw in air, resulting in reduced oxygen in the bloodstream and a build-up of carbon dioxide.
The coronavirus has no “set” treatment, with most patients naturally fighting off the infection.
Those requiring hospitalisation are given “supportive care”, like ventilation, while their immune system gets to work.