The techniques behind vaccines have been in development for at least five years
COVID-19 infection and death rates are raging, but the vaccine rollout brings new hope that the pandemic will end and we will return to normal soon. Yet, according to a recent Pew Research study, 40% of Americans are reluctant to get vaccinated. What to do?
Skepticism about vaccines has a long history in the United States. While the vaccines have proven to be extremely safe, dissidents have always worried about their safety. Vaccine skeptics are often called anti-science, but most are not opposed to vaccination in all areas. Some advocate the choice of vaccine and alternative schedules for immunization of children. The opposition comes from people of diverse political, racial, religious and socio-economic backgrounds. This is why the term “anti-vaccine” does not describe any particular group and does more harm than good when used derogatory, creating a wedge between doctors and patients.
My research on the history of vaccine reluctance in American culture suggests that there are ways to reduce anxiety. Much will depend on whether officials openly approach security concerns rather than simply dismissing opponents as anti-science conspiracy theorists. Here are some steps the Biden administration is expected to take in the coming weeks.
First, rename Operation Warp Speed. The emphasis on speed reinforces a common concern that the vaccine was a magic trick that could only have been done by sleight of hand. In fact, scientists have been working on a vaccine against the coronavirus for years. Basic scientific research supporting messenger RNA vaccines dates back to the mid-2000s, and the article that identified how to elicit the strongest immune response to coronaviruses was published in 2017. This is only because of the With long-standing investment in this research scientists were able to develop the revolutionary mRNA approach that allowed the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines to be deployed in record time.
Vaccine skeptics tend to be wary of authority structures that support science, but not science itself. The deceptive memes that populate the social media accounts of skeptics focus on corruption, implying that big governments, big pharmaceuticals and big investors have selfish financial interests in a “fast-track” vaccine. These ideas are influential and difficult to debunk.
It is essential that Americans know that the government has taken considerable financial risks with a variety of new vaccines. By pre-ordering hundreds of millions of doses of COVID-19 vaccines, the US government could have lost a lot of money if clinical trial data turned out to be inconclusive. As Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, recently explained, the “warping speed” aspect of the operation was a monetary bet, not a safety one. The techniques behind the vaccines that are now entering the market have been in development for at least five years, not five months.
Second, be completely transparent about side effects and why they may occur. Recent safety data published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that 50-60% of people who received a Pfizer vaccine trial experienced fatigue and / or headaches after their second dose. Almost 20% of the trial participants developed a fever. It is not a flu shot. It’s important for Americans to know that they can feel lousy for a day or two after being vaccinated. While childhood vaccines often require multiple doses, adults are not used to this pattern. Note that maximum effectiveness requires a second dose.
And, although very unlikely, serious reactions do occur. A healthcare worker in Alaska who received the Pfizer vaccine on Tuesday developed a severe allergic reaction and was hospitalized overnight. According to Food and Drug Administration guidelines, recipients are supposed to sit still for 15 to 30 minutes in case they need prompt treatment.
Finally, it is important to offer citizens reasonable incentives to get vaccinated. Employers could be encouraged to offer workers one or two paid sick days after receiving the vaccine. Companies that support employees in this way could build confidence in vaccine safety and ease the burden of potential recovery time. This type of public-private partnership would solve vaccine problems more effectively than the direct payments that some offer. While money talks (usually), direct payments could fuel federal government conspiracy theories to bribe people with money.
If we’ve learned anything from this pandemic, it’s that community-based public health messages are often ineffective in encouraging safety precautions. It’s easy to scold skeptics of vaccines as anti-science, but my research on these groups shows they have different concerns – parents worry about one-size-fits-all approaches to immunizing children while parents worry about universal approaches to immunizing children. Political liberals and libertarians focus on potential businesses. Corruption. Black Americans and other people of color are more likely to express distrust of medical innovation, in part based on a modern history of government abuse in the name of science.
Understanding and commitment is the way to go. Significantly addressing vaccine skepticism requires efforts on multiple fronts at all levels of care – from general federal messages to individual doctor-patient interactions. We need to start now if we are to have widespread adoption of the vaccine in 2021.
Kira Ganga Kieffer, a doctoral student in religious studies at Boston University, writes a book on vaccine skepticism in American history.