World-leading experts on the novel coronavirus have signed a statement of support for their Chinese colleagues, who are being attacked on social media and even threatened with violence as false rumours circulate about its origins.

There is a real risk that the open and transparent relationship between the Chinese scientists and their western counterparts will come to an abrupt end, impeding the sharing of data and the hunt for treatments and vaccines against Covid-19, warned Dr Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance in the United States, whose research into emerging diseases led to the identification of the bat origin of Sars, among others.

Daszak is one of 27 prominent public health scientists from nine countries who have signed the statement published by the Lancet medical journal. They include Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust in the UK, Jim Hughes, former director of the National Center for Infectious Diseases in the USA, Rita Colwell, former head of the US National Science Foundation and other leaders in infectious disease research and public health.

“We work very closely with the Chinese scientists. We have had incredible openness with the labs in China for the last 15 years, since Sars,” said Daszak. “We collaborate on what are dangerous viruses and get incredible information that helps public health around the world. That is all under threat right now.”

The Chinese scientists and their families have been abused on social media and threatened with violence. They are saying, said Daszak, “we are not going to talk, because every time we speak we get criticised and threatened”.

Conspiracy theories circulating on social media claim the coronavirus was artificially manufactured in a lab conducting bioweapons research. They are “crackpot theories that need to be addressed, but in the age of social media it is just impossible,” said Daszak.

As with the conspiracy theories around MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccination, those promulgating the rumours are in their own social media echo chambers.

And as with anti-vaxx theories, the unfounded rumours have then been amplified by mainstream politicians such as the US senator Tom Cotton, and international news platforms such as the Daily Mail.

The signatories to the statement, says Daszak, have put their reputations on the line in support of their Chinese counterparts who are being targeted. “There are scientists out there trying to save our lives,” he said. “They have been doing this for 15 years since the Sars outbreak.”

The Lancet letter is a “statement in support of the scientists, public health professionals, and medical professionals of China combatting Covid-19”.

“The rapid, open, and transparent sharing of data on this outbreak is now being threatened by rumours and misinformation around its origins. We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that Covid-19 does not have a natural origin. Scientists from multiple countries have published and analysed genomes of the causative agent, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (Sars-CoV-2) and they overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife, as have so many other emerging pathogens,” it says, linking to all the scientific evidence published so far.

The director general of the World Health Organization, Dr Tedros Adhanom, has also warned against rumours and misinformation, speaking of the “infodemic” that needs to be fought alongside the epidemic.

The statement continues: “Conspiracy theories do nothing but create fear, rumours, and prejudice that jeopardise our global collaboration in the fight against this virus. We support the call from the director-general of WHO to promote scientific evidence and unity over misinformation and conjecture. We want you, the science and health professionals of China, to know that we stand with you in your fight against this virus.”

It calls on other scientists to sign up to the statement. The signatories have also launched a change.org petition for public support.

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