Vaccine deniers aka anti-vaxxers are the worst sort of people to have at a dinner party. They will argue with you about how “vaccines cause autism!”, “vaccines are being used to plant microchips in people”, and that “5G causes coronavirus”. In the age of social media, attention-grabbing headlines and Facebook’s personalised algorithms are being used to expose and manipulate the public to this fake news. 31 million people follow anti-vax groups on Facebook. These groups spread misinformation and could be used to undermine the roll out of a Covid-19 vaccine. A survey by the CCDH (Centre for Countering Digital Hate) showed that one in six Britons were likely to refuse a Covid-19 vaccine and another sixth yet to make up their mind.
Think of the growing anti-vax movement as a disease with an R rate. Vocal vaccine deniers infect those who are unsure about vaccines. If the R rate goes above 1, too many people will refuse the vaccine and herd immunity will never be achieved. The best way to stop the spread of a disease is to stop people being infected with misinformation in the first place – and here is how to do it.
The key thing is to make the public more resilient to misinformation and get them to question what they are reading on social media. It is unlikely that you will change an anti-vaxxers mind about the benefits of vaccines (despite all the science behind them), so the focus is on those who are unsure. Discuss the benefits of vaccines – they eradicated the Polio pandemic and have reduced diseases like measles by 99.9% since the vaccines were introduced. It is important to remember that science is on your side.
Vaccines must go through vigorous testing to prove they are safe – there are many regulatory hurdles before a vaccine is approved for public use. The stages of vaccine production are overlapped (which is unusual as it is a big financial risk) with the Covid-19 vaccine, but because billions have been invested the process can be sped up without compromising safety. It has also helped that a lot of the teams working on a vaccine for Covid-19 worked on the original SARS virus that killed some 800 people. Earlier projects established the spike protein as the best vaccine target and scientists knew about the difficulties when creating a coronavirus vaccine.
Less than 10 weeks after a SARS-CoV-2 genetic sequence was published, Moderna had a vaccine ready for a Phase I trial. Now, nearly a year on, the final results of the trial show the vaccine has 94% efficacy and millions of doses have been bought by countries around the world. This vaccine, alongside the Pfizer vaccine, both use mRNA (genetic material) rather than a dead form of the pathogen. This vaccine is the first to be approved with synthetic mRNA to prevent a disease. After injection, cells use the mRNA (which is degraded after 72 hours) to produce the spike protein and your immune system produces antibodies and T cells destroy any infected cells. If you encounter the coronavirus, your immune system will be triggered and will prevent an infection.
Anti-vaxxers take all this information and twist it, and they fail to acknowledge the severity of diseases that could easily be prevented by mass vaccination. Being vaccinated does not make you a sheep – it makes you someone who cares about the lives of others and wants life to return to some form of normality. The less people that get vaccinated, the harder it is to achieve herd immunity. This means that outbreaks will continue to happen for years to come as people are infectious before they get sick.
Despite the severe health and economic impacts of the pandemic, people are not united on a potential vaccine like Americans were for the Polio vaccine in 1955. With the recent approval of the Pfizer vaccine, the end is in sight. It is important to engage with people who are unsure about vaccines in a simple and accessible way. Emphasize the high safety of vaccines and don’t discuss anti-vax arguments – this will only add fuel to the fire. Try and correct the content of the fake news and focus on the social benefit of vaccines. Stricter social media guidelines must be introduced to deal with anti-vaxxers to stop the spread of misinformation in order for a Covid-19 vaccine to have a chance at success.
Finally, remember to wear a mask, wash your hands, and keep your distance. DON’T believe everything you read on Facebook, and don’t be afraid to ask questions!
By Estelle Challinor