Is reporting of the coronavirus producing viral panic? 

There are two different outbreaks: one outbreak of a coronavirus, and one of viral fake-news, argue Clare Wenham and colleagues

Coronaviruses cause common colds, they also cause nCoV2019, but which of these messages is getting through to the public? Currently, the average UK citizen is much more likely to be infected with seasonal influenza than they are the novel coronavirus, but this is not what the population is concerned about, evidenced by lower vaccine uptake in recent years among over 65s and less than half pre-school children accepting the newly introduced influenza vaccine for their age group. There is a mismatch between the actual threat posed to the population by this newly emerging pathogen, and the perceived threat nationally and globally, spurred on by misinformation and competing media accounts. We conceptualise this as two different outbreaks: one outbreak of a coronavirus, and one of viral fake-news.

This sensationalised panic and fear concerning the nCoV2019 outbreak is a consequence of the proliferation of sources of information which exaggerate the severity of this outbreak, and a failure of public health institutions, such as the World Health Organization or Public Health England to demonstrate the authority in their risk communication and public health campaigns. In an era of real time reporting and smartphones, the evidence based voices of these health agencies are lost amid a sea of online “experts.” 

As academics who study health emergencies and health systems, we have been asked by media outlets for our opinions on the outbreak, and although we are not public health professionals, we are continually asked “How deadly is the virus?”, “How is it spreading?”, ‘’How can states better protect their populations from the virus?’’ “when will a vaccine be ready?’’, questions in which we are wholly unqualified to answer. Yet, there’s always someone willing to give an answer, and the proliferation of these ‘’experts’’ who are providing inaccurate or sensationalised information to media sources is alarming. This is then amplified by social media, the free uploading and exchanging of digital sources and the fear narrative which spreads rapidly across sites and promotes the fatalists voice. This, however, is self-fulfilling—the more the panicked outbreak narrative spreads, the greater demand there is for media coverage of the disease, thus perpetuating the fear. 

A second cause is the lack of extensive knowledge of this outbreak. The truth is that virologists and epidemiologists are still learning about the nature of this pathogen, so we as a global health community cannot provide all the answers needed. In this instance, lack of information and uncertainty fuels fear and panic. 

Within this, we need to consider the media’s role and responsibility in informing and shaping understanding and reaction to this outbreak. Are they aware of the public health impacts of headlines such as “Killer Virus”, “Deadly disease “or a ‘’killer coronavirus epidemic’.’ Alarmist headlines like these incite further fear among populations and communities, challenge the more measured public health communications from the government or WHO, and can undermine established public health prevention measures. The scarier the language and voice, the more this false narrative of coronavirus takes hold. Recent public anxieties regarding new disease outbreaks are in part due to an erosion of trust within leading public health institutions, over notable past failures from H1N1, Ebola, or measles. 

Yet, sensationalising an outbreak doesn’t just pose a threat to public understanding of an outbreak, and their actual and perceived risks, but this can have a knock on effect on healthcare utilisation. We know that during the Ebola outbreak Public Health England had to field a wealth of calls from concerned individuals, even without transmission in the UK. How might this be reproduced with nCoV2019? With a heightened sense of fear from a dominant, yet uninformed outbreak narrative, individuals with symptoms similar to coronavirus might seek medical care sooner, fearing they have this “killer disease.” We must consider the potential impact that this could have on an already constrained health system, with increased utilisation of services of people fearing they have contracted this novel pathogen and instead may be suffering from a whole range of influenza-like-illness. This could prove to have a greater impact than the pathogen itself in the UK. What will the trade offs have to be within the system to accommodate this added demand brought forth by viral panic?

Clare Wenham is Assistant Professor of Global Health Policy at London School of Economics. Twitter @clarewenham

Stephen L. Roberts is LSE Fellow in Global Health Policy. Twitter: @SRobe01

Elias Mossialos is Brian Abel-Smith Professor of Health Policy, Head of Department of Health Policy and Director of LSE Health. Twitter: @MOSSIALOS

Competing interests: None declared.