Levy: Arming Up Against Anti-vaxxers

It’s time to combat the misinformation on COVID-19 vaccines spread by the anti-vaxx movement.

by Gabrielle Levy | 5/28/20 2:00am

Nowadays, many people are focused on the question of when scientists will be able to find a COVID-19 vaccine — widely perceived as the only hope for returning to normal life. Fewer, however, are concerned about whether or not Americans will even take a vaccine against the coronavirus when one does become available.

As researchers work tirelessly to find a vaccine for COVID-19, the anti-vaccine movement has focused its efforts on preemptively convincing the American populace not to take a coronavirus vaccine. “Anti-vaxxers” have seized the opportunity to advance their platform by attending anti-lockdown rallies and propagating vaccine misinformation on Facebook and YouTube. For its part, the government has inadvertently fueled the anti-vaxxer movement through its mishandling of the pandemic, as I will discuss further. But no more time can be wasted. It is up to government agencies and reputable news sources to act now to get ahead of these conspiracies — if not, we face the risk of another devastating coronavirus outbreak in the future.

The COVID-19 pandemic poses a unique opportunity for the anti-vaccine movement. A recent article in The Atlantic argues that “a more fraught scenario for science communication is hard to imagine.” Indeed, the vaccine will likely be fast-tracked by the Federal Drug Administration, automatically making it vulnerable to false allegations from anti-vaxxers of being dangerous. The vaccine will also be new, which could even make those who aren’t normally cautious about vaccines hesitant. This sort of conspiratorial thinking will be somewhat unavoidable. The blunders already made by the U.S. government, however, were not. 

Several aspects of the U.S. government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic have served to diminish trust, thereby providing the anti-vaxx movement with ammunition. For instance, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention attempted to manage the mask shortage by assuring the public that masks weren’t necessary. It later retracted this claim, causing many Americans to perceive the organization as untrustworthy. Trump’s own lauding of the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine, which has yet to be proven as effective against the coronavirus, has also contributed to the erosion of public trust in the government’s ability to manage the health of American citizens.  

Besides decreasing public trust in its suggestions, the government has also made a number of missteps that have more directly fueled the flames of the anti-vaxx movement. For one, Trump appointed Moncef Slaoui, a former pharmaceutical executive with $12.4 million worth of vaccine-related stock options, to lead the administration’s vaccine initiative. It’s not hard to see how this could have raised suspicions among anti-vaxxers, many of whom  already view vaccines as money making schemes and believe that the health care industry is more concerned with profits than people. Moreover, the name given to the Trump administration’s vaccine initiative, “Operation Warp Speed”,  can be seen as playing “right into the hands of the anti-vaccine lobby”. The name prioritizes speed, lending itself to anti-vaxxers’ unfounded claims that the government and pharmaceutical companies are intent on releasing a vaccine as soon as possible with minimal testing or regard for public safety. 

It is clear that the U.S. government could have been more thoughtful and deliberate in its handling of the pandemic. Because of these past mistakes, it is even more important that the government and news agencies act now to get ahead of the swarm of conspiracy theories and misinformation that has already started forming around a COVID-19 vaccine. Federal health organizations, like the CDC and the FDA, need to devote a significant amount of resources toward publishing accurate, timely information about the steps a coronavirus vaccine would have to go through before approval and how such a vaccine would be implemented. And reputable newspapers should, for their part, undertake an initiative to counter false information. This could mean posting preemptive news articles on the vaccine on social media platforms that anti-vaxxers commonly exploit in an attempt  to overpower the spread of fake news.

Health experts have suggested that at least 70 percent of Americans will need to be immune to the coronavirus in order to achieve herd immunity. Worryingly, a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll found that a quarter of Americans have little or no interest in taking a coronavirus vaccine. The responses made it clear that there are widespread concerns that the accelerated development of a COVID-19 vaccine will come at the cost of proper safety measures. 

Reputable actors in health and media must act, and they must do so now if we are to conquer the lies spread by the anti-vaccine community and protect ourselves from future outbreaks.