Why Are People Skeptical of the New COVID-19 Vaccine?
As you read this, the Western world is getting ready for the first doses of an approved vaccine to fight COVID-19 to be administered. One vaccine has been approved for emergency use in the U.K., and two have applied for the same in the U.S.
More than a dozen other vaccine candidates are in various stages of testing, hoping to become tools in the fight to end the pandemic that has gripped the world for the past year. These are the most rapidly developed vaccines in history, and some people are skeptical.
The Top Candidates
The two vaccines currently awaiting emergency use authorization in the United States are those from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna. Both vaccines are made using messenger RNA, a new technology seeing its first successful vaccines.
Messenger RNA vaccines are genetic vaccines. They use some of the coronavirus’s genetic material to stimulate an immune response in humans.
Pfizer is an American company partnered with the German BioNTech. Moderna is an American company partnered with the National Institutes of Health and funded by the U.S. government as part of its Operation Warp Speed vaccine development initiative.
Both companies have agreements to supply doses of the vaccine to countries around the world as soon as they are approved. Each country has an approval process.
People have become increasingly skeptical of vaccines over the last two decades and that skepticism has grown during the pandemic, leaving experts to fear that even with an effective vaccine the pandemic will continue.
Some skeptics have been dubbed “anti-vaxxers”, referring to those who disapprove of all vaccines. Some are sure, despite all evidence to the contrary, that vaccines cause autism. Others are suspicious of government motives and subscribe to unsubstantiated conspiracy theories to support their stance.
Anti-vaxxers are motivated by fear of what they don’t understand. Vaccines are extremely complex and the process of development and testing is filled with dense scientific language, undecipherable to most people. When asked to trust that science, anti-vaxxers balk.
The anti-science movement in the United States has been exacerbated in recent years by top government officials refusing to recognize or act on reliable science, pursuing political agendas that demonize scientists and give fuel to anti-vax sentiments instead.
COVID-19 Vaccine Skeptics
A large group of current skeptics is suspect of COVID-19 vaccines specifically. The new technology, the speed with which the vaccines were developed, and mixed messages bombarding exhausted people have created a nation filled with confusion and fear.
In short, people are more afraid of the vaccine than they are of the coronavirus, which has killed over 250,000 people in the United States. People are not all skeptics for the same reason, and addressing that is important for the country to come together and fight both misinformation and fear.
While it is unusual to find anti-vaccine sentiments in communities of color, they make up a significant portion of those resisting COVID-19 vaccines. This is despite those communities being disproportionately affected by the disease itself.
A short look at the history of scientific racism uncovers some uncomfortable truths about the relationship between the scientific community and people of color. From involuntary sterilization to the Tuskegee syphilis study that allowed Black men to sicken long after treatment was available, communities of color have been used against their will to further scientific research.
That history created a legitimate cultural distrust of medical research. The fear of being abused and mistreated by pharmaceutical companies is causing already marginalized communities to regard quickly developed vaccines with skepticism.
Operation Warp Speed
Operation Warp Speed is an ambitious initiative to bring COVID-19 vaccines to market as quickly as possible. While perhaps admirably intended, when combined with an anti-science administration that speed seems reckless.
Vaccines are medicine’s most astounding success story, vanquishing deadly diseases like smallpox and polio. Most vaccines spend years in development, undergoing exhaustive trials and requiring extensive safety data before being approved for use.
To encourage private companies to take what can be perceived as shortcuts while refusing basic public health measures to prevent the spread of the disease has unfortunately tainted the resulting vaccines.
The pharmaceutical companies have been remarkably transparent in their efforts to combat misinformation. The public knows far more about these vaccine candidates than about any in history. But vaccine science is too complex to be adequately explained to a frightened public. As the saying goes, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.
To come together to fight anti-vaccine sentiment, Americans need some specific things from both government and the scientific community.
The first thing required is leadership. A consistent message from local, state, and national government leaders is essential for a vaccination campaign to be successful.
Three past presidents have joined to say they will take the vaccine in public—a gesture to be sure, but one that projects confidence and trust. The incoming administration needs to embrace the scientific community of today without ignoring the damage done to vulnerable communities in the name of science in the past.
The second thing required is calm, firm, and consistent acknowledgment and adoption of basic public health measures to reduce infections. That includes support for people whose livelihoods have been destroyed by the virus and a constant drumbeat of reminders to wear masks, stay home, and avoid crowds. Every day, everywhere.
The final step in getting over the hurdle of COVID-19 vaccine skepticism is time. Once leadership is present and consistent, public health is acknowledged and measures consistently adopted, and vaccinations begin, fear and skepticism will decrease as infections go down.
There was a time when people in the United States didn’t believe the virus was a threat because it hadn’t affected their communities. Those days are long gone. Americans can come together to reduce infections, and they can overcome fear and skepticism of COVID-19 vaccines with calm, transparent leadership from the government and the scientific community.
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