Now that vaccines for covid-19 are on the horizon, the next challenge will be to get enough people to take it. It seems that roughly 60% is the minimum number of people who should have immunity to the disease for herd immunity to take effect. Since the vaccines are about 90% effective, that means about 70% of the population needs to get it to achieve herd immunity. But getting to that number is not going to be easy. Surveys suggest that for various reasons, about 30% of Americans are what is called ‘vaccine hesitant’ and likely will not take it. That means that we will barely make the required threshold even if everyone who is not opposed to vaccines gets it. The 30% is greater than the hardcore anti-vaxxers who oppose giving vaccines to their children.
But there is an additional group that includes those who are not averse to vaccines but want to wait and see what happens to those who take it to see if it is safe. Initially, both Republicans and Democrats had similar acceptance rates for the vaccines. But when Trump started talking about the pandemic being a hoax, Republican acceptance dropped. Then Trump’s push to get vaccines out quickly to help his re-election chances made some Democrats suspicious that the speed with which these vaccines were developed may have led to corners being cut and the acceptance rate dropped even further. An August poll found that only 42% of the public said they’d immediately get the covid-19 vaccine when it becomes available. Another 25% said no and 33% said they were not sure. (Item #67 on the survey.) It is this 33% who will have to be persuaded that the vaccine is safe if we are to be able to exceed the minimum threshold.
Phase one drug trials are high-risk/low-benefit because they are checking for safety while phase three trials are low-risk/high benefit. Those who say they want to wait and see if the vaccine is safe before taking it may not realize that the phase three trials that have been completed are only done once safety concerns have been satisfied, which is why they feel able to give it to so many volunteers. At that stage they are looking to see how effective it is, not whether if it is safe or not. But since they give it to so many thousands of volunteers, the lack of any adverse outcomes so far is further assurance of safety. As far as I am aware, even the less than 10% of people for whom the vaccine did not provide immunity and got the disease developed only minor symptoms, so in a sense the vaccines are close to 100% effective in preventing serious effects of covid-19.
There have been discussions about how to target those people who are vaccine hesitant so that they too will take it. Hardcore anti-vaxxers spread powerful stories from parents who think their child acquired some illness or died after they took a vaccine. Scientific data that shows no link does not seem to have any effect in getting them to change. One reporter said that an anti-vaxxer cynically told her, “You have data, we have stories”. Vaccine advocates have tried to counter these with stories of their own, from parents speaking about how their child died from vaccine-preventable illnesses because they believed the anti-vaxxers. But those parents are viciously attacked on social media by the anti-vaxxers among others hesitant to come forward. And it is getting worse.
Johnson and a team of researchers published a paper in Nature in May that suggested the anti-vaccination movement bore a big responsibility for such hesitancy. It showed that although membership in online anti-vaccination groups was smaller than in pro-vaccination groups, there were more of them, their messages were more diverse, emotive and often persuading, and they were better at spreading those messages outside their groups, meaning they were able to reach more people.
Research from a forthcoming paper from Johnson and his team, currently in review for publication, shows members of communities previously considered unrelated or “undecided” on vaccines — groups for pet lovers, parent school groups, yoga fans and foodies, for instance — are increasingly connecting with the anti-vaccination movement.
“It’s like a tumor growth,” Johnson said.
A report by the London-based nonprofit organization Center for Countering Digital Hate found that the anti-vaccination movement gained about 8 million followers since 2019. Conspiracy theories about a coming Covid-19 vaccine have flooded social media, particularly on Instagram and Facebook, according to a new report from First Draft, a global nonprofit organization that researches online misinformation.
Such conspiracy theories (which purported the vaccine to be a clever cover for various forms of population control by a government “deep state,” private philanthropists or even Satan) weren’t limited to anti-vaccine fringe groups, First Draft reported, but were resonating with outside networks. Disparate communities including Libertarian, New Age, QAnon and anti-government groups, as well as more mainstream communities, seem to be uniting around the opposition to a coming Covid-19 vaccine.
“The anti-vaccine movement recognized that [Covid-19] was an opportunity to create content, so when people were searching for it, they would find anti-vaccine content,” she said. “They saw this as an opportunity not only to erode confidence in the Covid vaccine, but also to make people hesitant about routine childhood immunizations, as well.”
“[A]n opportunity to create content” is another way of saying that some unscrupulous people seize upon anything that is in the news to drive increased traffic to their site and thus make money, and the covid-19 vaccine has been one such opportunity for anti-vaxxers.
Former presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama have joined president-elect Joe Biden in announcing that they will publicly take the vaccine as a sign of their confidence in its safety and efficacy. Former president Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn are both staunch vaccine advocates but have so far not said whether they will get the vaccine. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., son of a Democratic icon, has become a prominent anti-vaxxer and his sister, brother, and niece have publicly chastised him for the damage he is causing by spreading “dangerous disinformation” about vaccines, writing in an op-ed that “On this issue, Bobby is an outlier in the Kennedy family.”
As far as I am aware, Trump has not made a similar pledge even though him doing so would be a powerful statement and reach far more skeptics than the others. Unfortunately, he does not do anything simply because it benefits others or is for the public good. He only does something if it benefits him in some way and he may not bother to take the vaccine because he thinks that having contracted the virus already gives him immunity.