Most Americans now believe the coronavirus originated from a laboratory in China

June 02, 2021, 5:30 PM UTC

Last week, President Joe Biden asked the U.S. intelligence services to investigate the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic amid reports that researchers in Wuhan, China were hospitalized with symptoms of the virus in November 2019. Amid the calls for further scrutiny, the latest Economist/YouGov poll shows that Americans are increasingly doubtful of the World Health Organization's assertion that the coronavirus originated through natural transmission from bats to humans.

Most Americans (58%) now put the origins of COVID-19 in a Chinese laboratory — up from 49% when YouGov first asked this question in May 2020. Two in five Democrats (43%) believe it’s probably true the virus had a laboratory beginning, a 10-point increase since last year (33%). Two-thirds of Independents (65%) now think the coronavirus originated from a laboratory in China, up 17 points from last year. 

Three-quarters of Republicans (77%) agree that a laboratory in China was the origin of the virus responsible for COVID, something that an overwhelming majority have believed since last year (72%). Former President Trump has asserted since April 2020 that the coronavirus originated in a laboratory in China, but he did not provide evidence for the statements. 

When it comes to the more specific circumstances of the virus’ emergence, 24% think it was created in a laboratory and was released on purpose, 18% think it was lab-created and escaped by accident, while a further 12% think it was a naturally occurring disease that was being examined in a laboratory but was released by accident.  

Only 13% agree with what has been the scientific community’s most common explanation for the origin of the virus: that it occurred naturally in the wild and mutated to a human infection. 

Republicans are more certain about the virus’ origin, and more than a third of them (39%) describe its genesis in the most potentially frightening way: that it was created in a laboratory and released into the world on purpose. By comparison, just 12% of Democrats believe the same. About one in five Democrats (21%) believe the coronavirus emerged via natural mutation in the wild, something just 4% of Republicans stand behind. 

College graduates (21%) are more likely than those without a college degree (9%) to believe that the virus naturally mutated in the wild. One-quarter of those without a college degree (26%) say it was created in a laboratory and released on purpose, compared to 19% of those with a college degree.

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President Joe Biden has consistently received positive assessments of his handling of the coronavirus, with every week’s positive evaluation of his handling of COVID-19 higher than any rating President Trump achieved. In this week’s poll, 53% approve, 35% disapprove.  

Those who approve include 85% of Democrats, half of Independents (50%), and 21% of Republicans. More Republicans approve of the Democratic president’s handling of COVID-19 than approve of his overall job performance. Just 14% of Republicans approve of how President Biden is handling his job overall.  

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Related: Explore the Economist/YouGov tracker of President Biden job approval rating 

See the toplines and crosstabs from this week’s Economist/YouGov poll 

Methodology: The Economist survey was conducted by YouGov using a nationally representative sample of 1,500 US Adult Citizens interviewed online between May 29 - June 1, 2021. This sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, and education based on the American Community Survey, conducted by the US Bureau of the Census, as well as 2016 Presidential vote, registration status, geographic region, and news interest. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel to be representative of all US citizens. The margin of error is approximately 2.8% for the overall sample.   

Image: Photo by CDC from Pexels