Germ Knowledge: Reporting During an Infodemic

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Germ Knowledge: Reporting During an Infodemic

COVID-19 was not the only pandemic sweeping the globe during the last year: the rapid spread of the coronavirus was accompanied, aided and abetted by an “infodemic” of misinformation. Among the falsehoods leaping from host to host were rumors that a malaria drug, hydroxychloroquine, is an effective treatment or even preventive medication for COVID (it isn’t), and that the vaccines alter individuals’ DNA (they don’t), cause female infertility (nope), or enable powerful elites to covertly insert tracking microchips into unwitting citizens (not a chance).

Amid the voluminous facts and fictions floating around, researchers are keen to find out just how widespread outdated, misinformed, and/or conspiratorial beliefs are among the American public. They also hope to learn how such beliefs may be related to what we know and understand about viruses, bacteria and vaccinations. To that end, from the end of January to the beginning of February 2021, researchers conducted a survey of 3,006 Americans on the pandemic, and their answers revealed some significant knowledge gaps.

Many participants attributed an agency to pathogens they don’t possess, with 60% of respondents erroneously believing that germs have the ability to move to places that make it easier to infect people. Likewise, nearly 63% incorrectly believe that viruses are able to reproduce outside a living host. Despite more than a year’s worth of news stories concerning the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, 40% of respondents said they believe COVID-19 is caused by bacteria, rather than a virus. Broken down by age, 49% of generation Z participants correctly said COVID-19 is caused by a virus, while 54% of millennials answered the question correctly, as did 62% of generation Xers, 67% of baby boomers, and 66% of the silent generation.

Considering those results, it’s a public health concern though perhaps not a surprise, that many people did not possess accurate information about treatment of viral infections, with about 52% incorrectly reporting that antibiotics definitely or likely could be used to treat viruses, with 23%  saying antibiotics are effective at treating COVID-19. Individuals belonging to older generations were more likely to answer this question correctly: More than 60% of the silent generation knew the right answer, whereas only 35% of those from generation Z did. The public was split when it came to hydroxychloroquine, with 43% believing it is likely or definitely an effective treatment and/or preventative for COVID-19. Other debunked prophylactic measures and conditions that the public was confused about include hot air hand dryers (22% thought them effective) and warm weather (21% did not identify the idea as definitely or likely false).

On a more positive note, most respondents indicated they intended to receive a COVID-19 vaccination when it became available. (The survey was conducted before vaccinations were widely available), with 63% reporting they were likely or very likely to get vaccinated. Intentions varied along political and racial lines. Among self-described liberals, 79% reported they were likely to receive a COVID-19 vaccination, as did 62% of moderates, and 55% of conservatives. Meanwhile, 64% of whites, 56% of African Americans, and 53% of Hispanics indicated they were likely to receive a vaccine when it became available to them.

Most respondents, 87%, understood the concept of herd or community immunity, in which the more citizens who are vaccinated against a disease, the less likely it is for other community members to be exposed to it.. Almost one-third, 31%) of participants espoused the debunked idea that vaccines can cause autism.

Here are some key findings :

  1. There are misperceptions about germs. A substantial number of people responding, 60%, said they believe germs can move to places that make it easier for them to infect people, and a similar number, 63%, said they believe viruses can reproduce outside a living host, beliefs that are incorrect. While strep throat is a bacterial infection, 68% of respondents erroneously thought it’s caused by a virus, and 40% incorrectly said COVID-19 (which stands for Coronavirus Disease 2019) is caused by bacteria. The knowledge that COVID-19 is caused by a virus increased with the age of respondents: 49% of gen Z, 54% of millennials, 62% of gen X, 67% of baby boomers, and 66% of silent generation participants answered the question correctly. The misperception that antibiotics can be used to treat viral infections is common: 52% of participants said they believe that’s likely or definitely true. Again, correct answers to this question were more common among older generations than younger ones.
  2. There are misperceptions about COVID-19. While the misperception about COVID-19 being caused by bacteria was the most common, other erroneous ideas abound: 43% of participants incorrectly believed it is likely or definitely true that hydroxychloroquine is an effective preventative and/or treatment for COVID-19, while 23% considered antibiotics to be an effective preventative, and 22% said they believe the same of hot air hand dryers. While 87% agreed that wearing masks is an effective means of limiting the spread of COVID-19 and 80% knew masks were effective in protecting the wearer, sharp differences existed between political ideologies, with 29% of conservatives and 19% of moderates saying masks are ineffective at limiting spread to others, and 28% of conservatives and 19% of moderates saying they are ineffective at protecting the wearer.
  3. There are misperceptions about vaccinations—and not just those for the coronavirus. Overall, 63% of participants reported that they intended to get vaccinated against COVID-19, and 4.6% had already been vaccinated at the time of the survey. Intentions varied by political ideology and race 40% of conservatives and 34% of moderates said they were unlikely to receive the shot, while only 16% of liberal respondents said the same. Among African Americans and Hispanics 42% and 41%, respectively, said they were unlikely to get vaccinated, higher than the 31% of white participants. Dishearteningly, nearly a third, or 31%, of participants espoused the long-debunked claim that vaccines can cause autism. This misperception was more common among younger participants—39% of millennials, 34% of gen Xers, and 32% of gen Zers believed in the mythological vaccine-autism link compared to 22% of baby boomers and 16% of the silent generation.

Even at the time of this survey, administered 10 months into the widely covered, COVID-19 pandemic, misperceptions were prevalent and, from a public health perspective, pernicious. Some that may be among the most important to address are the still circulating ideas that hydroxychloroquine is an effective preventative and/or treatment for COVID-19 (a view held by 43% of respondents), and that COVID-19 is caused by bacteria (which young people, in particular, were more likely to believe). These two fallacies are particularly important to correct, as they pertain to understandings about the treatment and nature of the pandemic. Hydroxychloroquine has not been shown to either treat or prevent COVID-19, and viral infections should be treated differently than bacterial ones; antibiotics, for instance, are only effective against the latter. On the plus side, there’s no shortage of material for science communicators to disseminate to the public — but how to get it to sink in, when 10 months of perpetual media coverage didn’t manage it, remains a puzzler.

You can read more about the survey design and the full report, called “Germ Knowledge: Reporting During an Infodemic” here and below. To learn more about the Cracking the Code project visit