In Depth

Coronavirus: how anti-vax movements threaten to undermine Covid-19 immunity push

Experts warn that growing wave of scepticism could ruin ‘whole programme’ of vaccination rollout

A series of successes in clinical trials is raising hopes that a Covid-19 vaccine will soon be approved by regulators and rolled out to communities worldwide. 

Not everybody is keen to be innoculated against the deadly virus, however, with a growing chorus of anti-vax protesters voicing objections. 

What are anti-vaxxers saying?

Suspicion of vaccinations is nothing new, but with the coronavirus continuing to claim thousands of lives every day, “conspiracy theories and misinformation fuelled by populism and social media threaten to undermine herd immunity”, The Times reports.

Much of the blame for the surge in anti-vax sentiments in recent years has been attributed to the work of discredited ex-physician Andrew Wakefield, who in the late 1990s wrongly claimed that the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine had the potential to cause autism in children.

Wakefield’s work “has caused multiple measles outbreaks in Western countries where the measles virus was previously considered eliminated”, according to the authors of a 2018 paper titled “The Anti-vaccination Movement: a Regression in Modern Medicine”.

The paper, published in the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, also points the finger at “social media” and even TV talk show hosts for playing a “big role in miseducation” by giving a platform to anti-vax theories.

And with many people using social media sources to stay updated about the coronavirus pandemic, the “stakes are now higher than ever”, Politico says. A Cabinet Office official told the site that Downing Street is currently “monitoring false claims” about Covid vaccinations online.

These claims include baseless suggestions that children will be vaccinated without parental consent; that the Army will coerce people to receive the vaccine; and that people have died as a result of taking part in a vaccine trial. Russian propagandists have also spread reports that the Oxford University-developed vaccine could turn people into chimpanzees.

How widespread is the movement?

A YouGov survey carried out on behalf of the Centre for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) in June found that around one in six British people were unlikely to agree to receive a Covid vaccine, with a similar proportion yet to make up their mind. The poll of almost 1,700 people found that respondents who relied on social media for information on the pandemic were more likely to have concerns about the potential jab.

Levels of scepticism are even greater in a number of other European countries. Around 37% of Italians are resistant to the idea of being vaccinated, according to a recent poll by research firm SWG. Likewise, polls in Germany “consistently suggest that about a third” of the adult population would not get a vaccine to protect against the coronavirus, says The Times.

In France, which the newspaper describes as “a bastion of vaccination scepticism”, just 40% of people are prepared to get a Covid-19 jab, recent polling by the Elabe Institute suggests. And in Spain, the percentage of doubters stands at around 47%, a study by the Carlos III Health Institute found.

Could the doubters undermine vaccine rollout?

Experts have warned that amid “hopes a vaccine rollout could begin before the end of the year, ministers must get on top of damaging narratives fast”, says Politico.

But Jamie Njoku-Goodwin, a former coronavirus response adviser to Health Secretary Matt Hancock, told the site: “It takes time to shift attitudes. You can’t do a week-long campaign and hope everything will be normal.

“You don’t want to get to a situation where we have a vaccine ready to roll out and 25% of the population would refuse to take it. That would undermine the whole programme.”

Scientists predict that at least 70% to 90% of the population will need to have the vaccine to stop the spread of Covid - meaning the anti-vaxxer communities pose a “big problem”, Dr Heidi Larson, director of the Vaccine Confidence Project at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told the London Evening Standard.

How can fake claims about the jabs be tackled?

The UK government “wants to fight the misinformation virus on multiple fronts, with a rebuttal team at the centre aided by Whitehall departments spreading positive messages in their areas and working with social media firms to take down damaging content”, Politico reports.

Social media companies have also “removed some of the most extreme content” relating to anti-vax theories, but have found it “difficult to police content that was more ambiguous or posted by organisations with innocuous-sounding names”, says The Guardian.

Vaccine Confidence Project director Larson says that “the biggest problem with all these misinformation efforts is that we’re not there with alternatives and we’re not listening”.

“Anti/sceptical vaccine individuals and groups are actively seeking out people who are questioning and hesitant,” she adds. “We’re just saying ‘Don’t worry’ and not really saying: ‘Tell me about your concern.’”

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