Will the global public accept a COVID-19 vaccine?

By Joan Conrow

September 11, 2020

As researchers race to develop a vaccine in response to COVID-19, new polls and studies are casting doubt on public acceptance of that approach.

Overall, several countries experiencing political instability and religious extremism are seeing growing skepticism that vaccines are safe, while the spread of misinformation online is threatening vaccination programs worldwide, according to a global study published in Lancet.

The Lancet study found that public confidence in vaccines varies widely between countries and regions, based on surveys conducted between 2015 and 2019. People in some European Union states, including Finland, France, Ireland and Italy, expressed increased confidence in vaccine safety. Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Indonesia, Nigeria, Pakistan and Serbia registered significant increases in respondents strongly disagreeing that vaccines are safe.

The findings are important because vaccines must be widely administered in order to be effective, but anti-vaccination groups are mobilizing in opposition to a COVID-19 vaccine. In some countries, the issue has become further complicated by politics.

“It is vital with new and emerging disease threats such as the COVID-19 pandemic, that we regularly monitor public attitudes to quickly identify countries and groups with declining confidence, so we can help guide where we need to build trust to optimize uptake of new life-saving vaccines,” says Prof. Heidi Larson from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, who led the research.

The World Health Organization declared vaccine hesitancy one of the top 10 threats to global health in 2019. Declining confidence can result in vaccine delays or refusals, which is already contributing to a rising number of preventable disease outbreaks in measles, polio and meningitis worldwide.

“One of the main threats to the resilience of vaccination programs globally is the rapid and global spread of misinformation,” Larson said in a press release. “When there is a large drop in vaccination coverage, it is often because there’s an unproven vaccine safety scare seeding doubt and distrust. Sometimes there is a genuine small risk that gets rapidly spread and amplified to appear to be a much larger risk. There are also cases where vaccine debates have been purposefully polarized, exploiting the doubting public and system weaknesses for political purposes, while waning vaccine confidence in other places may be influenced by a general distrust in government and scientific elites.”

Meanwhile, 81 percent of Americans surveyed feel it’s unlikely a COVID-19 vaccine will be available before the Nov. 3 presidential election and less than half of would get it if it is, according to a poll conducted in the United States from Aug. 28 to Sept. 3 by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Additionally, 62 percent of those polled are worried that political pressure from the Trump administration will lead the Food and Drug Administration to rush to approve a coronavirus vaccine without making sure that it is safe and effective. About four in 10 believe key government agencies, including the FDA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are paying “too much attention” to politics when it comes to reviewing and approving treatments for coronavirus or issuing guidelines and recommendations.

The Kaiser poll also found that nearly half of American adults hold at least one misconception about coronavirus prevention and treatment. One in five say wearing a face mask is harmful to your health and one in four believe hydroxychloroquine is an effective treatment for coronavirus. Though numerous studies have debunked that claim, it was widely touted by Trump.

“The continued spread of SARS-CoV-2 is a practical demonstration of what happens when science denial supplants evidence-based decision-making at multiple levels of government, from mask mandates to reopening schools mid-pandemic,” writes Jonathan Berman, a renal physiologist and author of the newly released “Anti-Vaxxers: How to Challenge a Misinformed Movement” .

“To address denial, advocates of vaccination need to do more than treat denial as stemming from an information deficit, a strategy that is often ineffective,” he continued. “They will need to untangle the partisan threads that have characterized pandemic policymaking to date. When vaccination is made partisan, the truth of the ‘facts’ will matter less to many people than whether those ‘facts’ support their partisan leanings.”

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