Skip to main content

South Dakotans’ Thoughts on the Origins of COVID-19

The South Dakota COVID-19 Family Impact Survey 2021 was conducted from July 31st to August 14th, 2021 by The SDSU Poll, a research group housed in the School of American and Global Studies at South Dakota State University. This survey builds upon similar surveys conducted by The SDSU Poll in October 2020 and April 2021. In this poll, a total of 573 registered voters in South Dakota completed our survey about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their daily lives. The margin of error of this survey was +/- 4 %, on par with other state-wide polls.

Half of South Dakotans Believe COVID-19 Originated in a Laboratory in China

The origin of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 remains unclear. Some scientists believe that it was transmitted from animals to humans and thus has a natural zoonotic origin. Others believe the virus was engineered at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China and escaped from the laboratory. The unwillingness of the Chinese government to share information and to give international researchers access to data have certainly contributed to the uncertainty over the origins of the virus. President Biden authorized intelligence agencies to investigate the matter. However, the report yielded inconclusive results on whether the virus was spread to humans through exposure to an indicated animal or a laboratory-related incident. As part of our survey, we asked South Dakotans on their beliefs on the origin of the virus, particularly if they believed that the virus originated in a laboratory in China. 

Our results show that just over half of South Dakotans (53%) believe that COVID-19 probably or definitely was created in a lab in China. Nearly one in five (18%) said that the theory that COVID-19 originated in a lab was probably or defiantly not true. The rest (29%) said they were not sure.

pie chart showing that 53% of South Dakotans believe COVID came from a Chinese lab, 18% believe it did not, and 29% are unsure.

Education Level Influences Beliefs about the Origin of COVID-19

The survey results also reveal that South Dakotans’ opinions about the origin of COVID-19 are related to their level of education. About 60% of South Dakotans with less than a 4-year degree say COVID-19 is probably or definitely created in a lab in China, compared to 45% of those with a 4-year degree or higher. The percentage of participants with less than a 4-year degree say idea that the COVID-19 was developed in a lab is probably or defiantly false (15%) is smaller than those with a 4-year degree or higher (22%). Respondents with less than a 4-year degree who say they are not sure about the origin of the COVID-19 (26%) is smaller than those with a 4-year degree or higher (32%). While researchers debate the exact causal mechanisms at work, this finding is consistent with extensive research that shows a link between the acceptance conspiratorial explanations and lower levels of education. These differences reach what researchers call “statistical significance,” however they are not the primary driver of these attitudes in South Dakota.

pie charts showing that 45% those with a 4-year degree or more believe COVID was created in a lab, 22% said it was not, and 32% were unsure; and amongst those with less education than a four-year degree 60% believe it is true, 15% believe it is false, and 26% are unsure.

Republicans Are More Likely to Believe That COVID-19 Originated in a Lab

The survey finds that political affiliation strongly shapes South Dakotans’ beliefs about the origin of COVID-19, as it does with many COVID-19–related topics we have examined in SDSU polls. A large share of Republicans in South Dakota (76%) say COVID-19 was probably or definitely created in a lab in China compared to 16% of Democrats. Just over one-third of Democrats (36%) and 6% of Republicans say this notion is definitely or probably false. Nearly half of Democrats (48%), and 18% of Republicans say they are not sure. Not a single Republican in our sample of 573 registered voters was willing to state that the possibility of COVID-19 emerging from a Chinese lab was definitely false. These results reinforce our consistent finding in all of our polls that partisanship is structuring most matters on COVID-19, be they policies on mitigation or best practices on prevention. In the instance of virus origin, this is undoubtedly a result of the rhetorical strategy of President Trump who constantly emphasized the Chinese origins of the virus to frame the pandemic as a foreign threat, and the current conservative media environment that highlights the secrecy and obstruction of Chinese officials on this question.

pie charts showing that 16% of Democrats believe the COVID virus was created in a Chinese lab, 36% believe it was not, 48% are unsure; amongst Republicans, 76% say it was, 6% say it was not, 18% are unsure.

In our final press releases we will look at the psychological effects of COVID-19 on South Dakotans and return to our roots as political scientists to look at how prominent South Dakota politicians are faring in the eyes of the public and their parties.

Contributors: Filip Viskupic PhD, Abdallah Badahdah PhD & David Wiltse PhD