Responses have been lightly edited for clarity.
With the exponential growth of COVID-19 cases around the world, many people are questioning whether the global pandemic — which has infected more than 3.39 million people worldwide as of May 2 — was originated in the lab by scientists.
In a virtual interview with The Bottom Line, Interim Student Health Service Executive Director and Medical Director Dr. Ali Javanbakht answered students’ most common questions regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, the origin of the virus, and common fake news displayed in the media.
Javanbakht said scientists can distinguish whether the virus was found in nature or created in the lab based on the DNA’s structure.
“No, there is no evidence that coronavirus was created by people,” Javanbakht said. “We can tell if somebody has created this virus in the lab; this is not one of those things because it’s found in nature, it’s found in animals, and just in the right circumstances, now it has jumped to humans.”
Additionally, claims that the COVID-19 originated in the United States have been trending across various news outlets. According to Javanbakht, this is unlikely.
“It presented itself when they saw a trend of people dying in Wuhan,” Javanbakht said. “So if it would have started in the U.S., we would have seen that too and that’s what would have brought our attention.”
Although Javanbakht recognizes that it is well possible the virus has been in the U.S. since February, sooner than expected, he finds it hard to believe that its origin began in the states.
Javanbakht thinks all of these concerns are mainly caused by the media provoking fear in people. News coverage often overrepresents the risk in order to gain attention from its audience.
“Creating a headline that will make you feel alarmed and scared will make you click on it to see what they said,” Javanbakht stated. “What they want is for people to click on their articles and what helps people click on [them] is fear and anxiety.”
Social media has also become a prevalent source of information that people rely on. In these platforms, people express their personal stories and how they overcame the virus, but Javanbakht warns people to not take these stories to heart.
“Someone might tell their story about how they contracted the coronavirus, what they did, and how this resulted in them getting better,” Javanbakht said. “People might think this is it … Not true, because it’s just one person’s experience.”
Similar to these stories, people often express concern about how easily the virus spreads. To address these concerns, Javanbakht provided some examples to illustrate during which scenarios the virus is unlikely to be contracted.
“The main way for COVID-19 to be transmitted is from one person directly to another,” Javanbakht said. “If someone is closer than six feet for longer than two minutes roughly, then there’s enough risk.”
Based on this, Javanbakht addressed scenarios like running past someone who has the virus, are unlikely to spread it. Other similar situations include food delivery services, which also offer a low risk of transmission.
“If a food delivery bag has coronavirus, something as simple as getting the food out, throwing the bag away, and washing your hands is good enough,” Javanbakht said.
Javanbakht also thinks it’s important to note that articles that mention research studies done can sometimes be misleading. As the research gets out, the news immediately begins distribution, however, this is only an initial study, and not enough data is available to derive generalizations due to lack of context.
Students and the public are urged to follow the guidelines of experts — whose job is to study the data and make recommendations — rather than relying on incomplete or insufficient information.