Despite a lack of a coronavirus vaccine, already conspiracy theories surrounding one are sprouting up and the misinformation they contain can hold up research on a remedy for COVID-19. It’s one thing to latch on or look to conspiracy theories to try to make sense of events people do not understand. However, in this case, they are treated like an ideology or religious belief and used as justification to hinder medical scientific progress.
We Don’t Even Have a COVID-19 Vaccine, and Yet the Conspiracies Are Here
Even as vaccines for the disease are being held up as the last hope for a return to normalcy, misinformation about them is spreading.
SARAH ZHANG, MAY 24, 2020, The Atlantic
In March, when a woman in Seattle volunteered for a COVID-19 vaccine trial, rumors immediately began circulating that she was a crisis actor who had received a fake vaccine. She is, in fact, real, and so is the prospective vaccine she got, as the Associated Press asserted in a follow-up story. In Oxford, England, another volunteer for a separate COVID-19 vaccine trial became the subject of a fake news story that purported she had died after a shot. She too was forced to clarify the situation: She is very much alive.
There is no COVID-19 vaccine, but there are already COVID-19 vaccine conspiracies. Even as vaccines for the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2 are being held up as the last hope for a return to normalcy, misinformation about them is spreading. A more fraught scenario for science communication is hard to imagine: a novel vaccine, probably fast-tracked, in the middle of a highly politicized and badly mishandled pandemic.
“I was initially optimistic that, when people felt the need for a COVID-19 vaccine, the anti-vaccination movement would undergo a period of retreat,” says Peter Hotez, a vaccine scientist at Baylor College of Medicine, who has himself become a frequent target of vaccine skeptics. “It’s actually had the effect of reinvigorating the anti-vaccine movement.”
Hotez points to a number of recent missteps that have given vaccine skeptics ammunition: unrealistically rosy timelines for a vaccine; the appointment of a former pharma executive with $12.4 million worth of vaccine-company stock options to lead the White House’s new vaccine initiative (he is now divesting); even the name of the Trump administration’s vaccine initiative itself, Operation Warp Speed. “A ridiculous metaphor,” Hotez says, “that plays right into the hands of the anti-vaccine lobby” by emphasizing swiftness rather than safety.
But the U.S. government has mismanaged the broader COVID-19 response too—including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s botched testing plan and the flip-flopping on face masks and the president’s continued boosting of an unproven drug. “How people think about vaccines is very much going to depend on their trust relationship,” says Heidi Larson, an anthropologist and the director of the Vaccine Confidence Project. “Governments can either totally mess up, and they’ll lose their confidence in government and therefore when a vaccine comes along they’re not going to trust it. Or [governments] can do a pretty good job and that will help boost confidence.” The ultimate legacy of this pandemic, then, could be a broad erosion of trust in authorities, endangering public-health efforts into the future.
PHOTO CREDIT: A cartoon from a December 1894 anti-vaccination publication