Experts warn anti-vax COVID-19 concerns could derail immunity

Eufemia Didonato

Vaccines are a safe and controlled way to gain immunity to a virus without contracting the disease, but some Americans are still skeptical of an upcoming vaccine against the novel coronavirus. Anti-vaxxers in the US and beyond are worried there isn’t enough information to make an educated decision on whether […]

  • Vaccines are a safe and controlled way to gain immunity to a virus without contracting the disease, but some Americans are still skeptical of an upcoming vaccine against the novel coronavirus.
  • Anti-vaxxers in the US and beyond are worried there isn’t enough information to make an educated decision on whether to get a vaccine to protect against or prevent the disease.
  • Experts told Insider their hesitation could derail nationwide progress in curtailing the spread of the virus, which has infected more than 13 million Americans and killed 272,000.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

As pharmaceutical companies race to develop successful vaccines to end the coronavirus pandemic, anti-vaccination communities are predictably skeptical that they will get shots to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Despite scientific evidence showing the safety and efficacy of vaccines, the proportion of Americans who say vaccinations are important and safe has decreased about 10% in the last two decades, Gallup polling shows. This year, critics have made headlines during the pandemic by protesting a potential COVID-19 vaccine, attempting to discredit scientists, and vowing they would not be vaccinated against the novel coronavirus.

Experts warned Insider that this skepticism could make it take longer to curtail the spread of the virus in the US and around the world.

On Tuesday, the UK approved the first COVID-19 vaccine for public distribution. The US is expected to follow suit with the leading candidates from pharmaceutical companies Moderna and Pfizer when regulatory bodies are finished reviewing the safety and efficacy data from the clinical trials measuring the vaccines.

A majority of Americans, 58%, said in a November Gallup poll that they would take a coronavirus vaccine if it was available today at no cost to them. Still, a sizable chunk, or 42%, said the opposite. Most people who were hesitant cited worries about rushed development or wanting to know more about the safety or efficacy of the vaccines. Of the people who said they wouldn’t get a COVID-19 vaccine, only 12% said they “don’t trust vaccines in general.”

But the struggle, health experts told Insider, will be getting enough people to get a vaccine.

Houston hospital patient

Joseph Varon, the doctor in charge of the COVID-19 unit at United Memorial Medical Center in north Houston, checks on a COVID-19 patient.

Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Anti-vaccine communities on social media viewed by Insider are split on whether to trust COVID-19 shots. Some people fear there isn’t enough clear information about the new coronavirus for them to make an educated decision. Others are flat out rejecting a coronavirus vaccine.

Peter Hotez, an expert on vaccine development from the Baylor College of Medicine, told Insider that communities suspicious of vaccines include people on the far right arguing for individual health freedom, as well as some ethnic and religious groups.

“The anti-vaccine movement does not always speak with one voice,” Hotez said.

There is no single definition for what it means to be an anti-vaxxer. Some self-identified anti-vaxxers are vehemently against all vaccines. Some are skeptical of specific vaccines, like those developed for the coronavirus, for example.

“I don’t believe vaccines are bad, but with the amount of lies and deception surrounding COVID, I genuinely don’t trust this vaccine,” Alabama-based Michael Freeman, who is part of an online anti-vaccine group, told Insider. “I’d say get it eventually, but not right now.”

Anti-vaccine protests US

Scott Eisen/Getty Images

One Michigan-based man who’s been against vaccines for 12 years said he had a negative experience the last time he got vaccinated. Mitchell Frost received a tetanus shot in middle school that caused “severe pain” and forced him to stay off the track team for weeks, he said. That experience is ingrained in Frost’s mind, especially as progress in COVID-19 vaccine development ramps up.

Frost said he thinks vaccines are coming “too fast to [the] market,” adding that the companies developing the vaccines are relying on humans to be a “test rat.”

It’s not unusual for people to be skeptical of vaccines, and some skepticism can come from a good place, according to Jennifer Reich, a sociologist at the University of Colorado Denver who’s studied vaccine hesitation.

Reich told Insider there’s a small group of the population “who will never believe vaccines are useful.” However, she added, it’s more productive to focus on the people who aren’t sure they want vaccines.

“Vaccines are different than other medications because it requires a healthy person to agree to absorb some minute risk to protect against the risk of infection that can often be life-threatening,” Reich said. “The result is that people weigh risks and benefits and decide if they trust the vaccine’s safety and weigh their perceptions of the risk of the vaccine against their understanding of the risk of the disease. These perceptions may not reflect scientific evidence about risk, but do reflect people’s fears, concerns, and beliefs about their ability to control disease.”

She added that prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, about one-third of parents delayed giving their children vaccines.

“Most people who are hesitant about vaccines are not ‘anti-vaxxers,'” she said. “They are trying to weigh information and make decisions that feel safe and help them accomplish their goals for themselves and their families. This makes me believe we aren’t as far apart as it might seem at times.”

covid vaccine trial

Lisa Taylor receives a COVID-19 vaccination from RN Jose Muniz with the help of Karenda Palmer, a staff member, as she takes part in a vaccine study at Research Centers of America on August 07, 2020 in Hollywood, Florida.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Misinformation and uneven policies are barriers to reaching immunity

Since the novel coronavirus first appeared, state officials have been responding to outbreaks individually, enforcing regulations and cautioning citizens in varied ways. There are indicators that’s unlikely to change once vaccines roll out.

From state to state, government officials are determining whether the vaccine — when it goes through its final approval stages and is ready for distribution — will be mandatory. New York City’s Fire Department, for example, said its front-line responders and medics will not be required to get one.

Research on immunity after recovering from COVID-19 is ongoing. Scientists don’t yet know exactly how long a person is immune from being infected with the virus a second time. But vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna are about 95% effective in trials and are expected to start rolling out in the coming months.

The top scientist on the US government’s Operation Warp Speed group tasked with overseeing vaccine development and rollout said on Wednesday that he expects 100 million Americans to receive a vaccine in the next 100 days once they’re approved.

About 70% of a population needs to have COVID-19 antibodies to interrupt the spread of the virus, according to the Mayo Clinic.

A spokesperson for the World Health Organization told Insider anti-vax views can be “dangerous” because “They are not supported by science.”

“Refusal to be vaccinated can lead to gaps in herd immunity, and have a range of consequences,” the spokesperson added. “These consequences can go far beyond the health of individuals and communities and have a broader impact on society and economies as well.”

Vaccines are a safe and controlled way to gain immunity to a virus without contracting the disease, but with factors like misinformation fueling hesitation, Hotez said he is concerned the US won’t reach 70% because of the anti-vaccine movement.

coronavirus hospital complication heart

Houston Fire Department medics transport a man to a hospital after he suffered cardiac arrest on August 11, 2020 in Houston, Texas. Heart failure is a frequent result of COVID-19. Firefighters and medics wear protective masks on all medical calls, whether patients have been tested for COVID-19 or not, in order to protect themselves from infection.

John Moore/Getty Images

“We need to expand vaccine communications through our HHS federal agencies, FDA, CDC, but also at the state and local level,” he told Insider. “In parallel, we need to better educate healthcare professionals about vaccines, and finally, explore how we can take down some of the anti-vaccine content now pervasive on the internet, social media, and e-commerce platforms.”

For the first few months, Americans received garbled guidance on how to steer clear of the disease. Health officials frequently fell out of line when specifying precautionary steps to take. In March, in part because of the dire shortage of protective equipment for health professionals, Surgeon General Jerome Adams warned against wearing face masks. Just weeks later, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed course upon evaluating “new evidence” and began to urge people to wear masks.

Further confusion can be traced to misinformation that sprouted online in less official capacities. Since the pandemic’s onset in the spring, conspiracy theorists and scammers have been publishing fictitious or inaccurate information about the spread of the coronavirus.

Reich said confronting misinformation can be difficult and not a particularly useful way to persuade people to be vaccinated. She said public-health experts and authorities should focus on transparency and “providing clear information” about the vaccine development process.

“I found that while researching vaccines, the US has an impressive system of multiple layers of scientific review from multiple committees of experts. Yet, most people don’t know a lot about this process and need more information to feel comfortable trusting vaccines are safe,” Reich said. “Providing clear information that explains why the public should trust the process of developing these vaccines and why they are worthy of their trust would go a long way in persuading people to get them.”

Read more: Drugmakers behind 3 coronavirus vaccines say they work. Here’s everything we know about the race for a vaccine and when you might be able to get a shot.

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