Society for Risk Analysis (SRA)

Exploring the Zoonotic Origins of COVID-19

How does the way we speak about the origins of COVID-19 affect people’s reactions to the virus?
27-May-2020 5:05 PM EDT, by Society for Risk Analysis (SRA)

Newswise — Around the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a lot of dialog surrounding its zoonotic origins, or its transmission from animals to humans. Emerging zoonosis make up a large portion of novel diseases, including ones that have been popular in the press over the last decade – including Ebola, SARS and MERS – and likely COVID-19. Despite the fact that zoonotic origin plays little role in actual disease transmission outside of original human-animal contact, how zoonotic origins are communicated can influence risk perception and preventative behaviors, including how people interact with animals that are known to be possible sources of a disease.

A lot of animals carry coronaviruses - In the early stages of the pandemic, at least in the U.S., there were continually stories about possible zoonotic origins of COVID-19, and a whole bunch of different animals were discussed up when the first cases arrived in the U.S. There were articles about snakes, then pangolins, and even articles about dogs as a possible source. The CDC lists camels, cattle, cats and bats as potential carriers and potential sources of infection for humans. Conveying such a wide range of species as susceptible increases perceptions of risk and affects people’s intentions to engage in risk relevant behaviors.

Exotic animals can activate stereotypes - There is a potential drawback in describing exotic animal origins, particularly ones that are food-related, because it can activate cultural stereotypes associated with cultures that eat those foods. These stereotypes lead to discriminatory practices and avoidance of people from these cultures and has the potential to increase stigma. This stigma can decrease a lot of efforts to reduce the disease spread because it decreases health seeking behavior.

How are U.S. citizens reacting to different possible sources? Tyler Davis, Ph.D., a professor of psychological sciences at Texas Tech, and his team of researchers began their study after the first official U.S. case was reported in January and concluded their data collections after an official pandemic was declared in March. Using an online sample, the researchers described five different possible origins of the coronavirus, one of which was a familiar food source, pigs, the other ones were more divergent from what people in the U.S. would tend to eat as food. Each source was described using similar wording, with just the type of animal subbed out in each version.  Here is what they found:

Zoonotic origin affects people’s perceptions of risk. This was highest for snakes, which was one of the first sources to be named, and lowest for pigs, which are a more common food source. The source also affected peoples’ intentions to engage in preventative behaviors, including things like washing hands, wearing a mask, etc. When pigs were described as the source, people had lower intentions of engaging in these behaviors. People had the highest intentions of engaging in preventative behaviors when snakes were described as the source.

Rise in xenophobic behaviors - One of the more troubling manifestations of this effect was that people, after reading about exotic origins, tended to say that they had more higher intentions to avoid people of Asian descent. When pigs were described as the source, people had lowered intentions to engage in xenophobic behaviors. This kind of stigma also leads to potential reduced treatment seeking, such as going out and getting tested.

Zoonotic origin plays little role in actual disease transmission outside of original human animal contact and interacting with animals doesn't affect the current pandemic. But people behave as if it does matter. Communication about zoonotic origin influence people's risk perception and their intentions to engage in avoidance behaviors, and some of these avoidance intentions can indirectly impact stigma. And we have seen this happen in the past, for example when talking about origins of H1N1 or labeling it as Mexican flu has stigmatized Latin Americans, and with the Ebola crisis, there was stigmatization of West Africans. So exoticness can be a double-edged sword, where it makes for good headlines, But the early emphasis on this might have also led to some of the discrimination we saw early in the pandemic. Although describing exotic origins does tend to increase perceptions of risk and intentions to engage in some of those important preventative behaviors, it also has some severe drawbacks.  Full interview with Davis can be found at



Filters close

Showing results

110 of 2454
Released: 3-Jul-2020 10:25 AM EDT
Lack of lockdown increased COVID-19 deaths in Sweden
University of Virginia Health System

Sweden’s controversial decision not to lock down during COVID-19 produced more deaths and greater healthcare demand than seen in countries with earlier, more stringent interventions, a new analysis finds.

Released: 2-Jul-2020 3:10 PM EDT
Researchers outline adapted health communications principles for the COVID-19 pandemic
CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy

The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced unique challenges for public health practitioners and health communicators that warrant an expansion of existing health communication principles to take into consideration.

Released: 2-Jul-2020 1:40 PM EDT
Collectivism drives efforts to reduce the spread of COVID-19
University of Kent

Research from the University of Kent has found that people who adopt a collectivist mindset are more likely to comply with social distancing and hygiene practices to help reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Released: 2-Jul-2020 12:30 PM EDT
Tiny mineral particles are better vehicles for promising gene therapy
University of Wisconsin-Madison

University of Wisconsin–Madison researchers have developed a safer and more efficient way to deliver a promising new method for treating cancer and liver disorders and for vaccination — including a COVID-19 vaccine from Moderna Therapeutics that has advanced to clinical trials with humans.

Newswise: Newer variant of COVID-19–causing virus dominates global infections
Released: 2-Jul-2020 12:10 PM EDT
Newer variant of COVID-19–causing virus dominates global infections
Los Alamos National Laboratory

Research out today in the journal Cell shows that a specific change in the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus virus genome, previously associated with increased viral transmission and the spread of COVID-19, is more infectious in cell culture.

Newswise: From Wuhan to San Diego—How a mutation on the novel coronavirus has come to dominate the globe
Released: 2-Jul-2020 12:05 PM EDT
From Wuhan to San Diego—How a mutation on the novel coronavirus has come to dominate the globe
La Jolla Institute for Immunology

Two variants of the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2), called G614 and D614, were circulating in mid-March. A new study shows that the G version of the virus has come to dominate cases around the world. They report that this mutation does not make the virus more deadly, but it does help the virus copy itself, resulting in a higher viral load, or "titer," in patients.

Released: 2-Jul-2020 11:50 AM EDT
New Study Explains Potential Causes for “Happy Hypoxia” Condition in COVID-19 Patients
Loyola Medicine

A new research study provides possible explanations for COVID-19 patients who present with extremely low, otherwise life-threatening levels of oxygen, but no signs of dyspnea (difficulty breathing). This new understanding of the condition, known as silent hypoxemia or “happy hypoxia,” could prevent unnecessary intubation and ventilation in patients during the current and expected second wave of coronavirus.

Released: 2-Jul-2020 10:15 AM EDT
Stemming the Spread of Misinformation on Social Media
Association for Psychological Science

New research reported in the journal Psychological Science finds that priming people to think about accuracy could make them more discerning in what they subsequently share on social media.

29-Jun-2020 9:00 AM EDT
Coronavirus damages the endocrine system
Endocrine Society

People with endocrine disorders may see their condition worsen as a result of COVID-19, according to a new review published in the Journal of the Endocrine Society.

Showing results

110 of 2454