Special Briefing: Could a Coronavirus Vaccine Destroy the Anti-Vax Movement?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Anti-vaxxers are rallying against future coronavirus inoculations, but it could be their undoing.
By Fiona Zublin
This is an OZY Special Briefing, an extension of the Presidential Daily Brief. The Special Briefing tells you what you need to know about an important issue, individual or story that is making news. Each one serves up an interesting selection of facts, opinions, images and videos in order to catch you up and vault you ahead.
WHAT TO KNOW
What’s happening? As the coronavirus pandemic rages around the world, many are desperately hoping for a vaccine in record time. At least 76 potential vaccines are in development, with the most advanced research teams saying shots could be ready as soon as September, far faster than any vaccine has ever been developed before. But not everybody’s happy about it: The anti-vaccine movement that’s been growing for the past several years may be facing an existential crisis.
Why does it matter? There’s some evidence that COVID-19 could get anti-vaxxers to abandon their views. London’s Vaccine Confidence Project recently found that while 33 percent of people in France — known to be the country that distrusts vaccines the most — say they don’t think vaccines are safe, only 18 percent would refuse a COVID-19 immunization. It also found that as understanding of the coronavirus grows, people are more likely to be open to a vaccine. Still, the virus has fostered lots of conspiracy theories, and some worry that the rush to inoculate against coronavirus could lead to corners being cut, which could bolster anti-vaxxers’ evidence-free claims.
HOW TO THINK ABOUT IT
Personal space. U.S. vaccines fall into three categories: voluntary (like the flu, which only 45 percent of Americans got inoculated for in 2019); mandatory, like the MMR vaccination kids have to get to attend school; and compulsory, which is what happens when someone refuses to get a mandatory vaccine and is deemed a threat to public health. Anti-vaxxers opposed to government intervention say they’re worried that the coronavirus vaccine will fall into the third category — though doctors say fears about supply actually mean people will likely be competing to get the vaccine rather than scrambling away from it. Still, some anti-vaccine die-hards insist the coronavirus isn’t that serious (despite the fact that it’s now killed more Americans than the Vietnam War) and they’d prefer the disease to the vaccine.
Help or hurt. Anti-vaccine movements have gained ground in recent years — a Gallup Poll in January found just 84 percent of Americans currently say it’s very important that children be vaccinated, down 10 percentage points from 2001. Some influential peddlers of junk science have helped that along, and celebrities like M.I.A. and Novak Djokovic have said they’d refuse a coronavirus vaccine. Meanwhile, a wacky conspiracy theory holds that Bill Gates is supporting development of a vaccine so he has an excuse to microchip people. But the reality of an actual pandemic, some scientists hope, could drive home to skeptical parents the importance of inoculations, and help drive those vaccine confidence numbers up again to bolster herd immunity.
Moving too fast. One big driver of anti-vax sentiment in China has been the erosion of trust in pharma companies, like one in 2018 that was fined for falsifying data. In 2016, a fake vaccine scandal rocked Indonesia. Some worry that the speed at which labs are trying to produce a COVID-19 shot could actually bolster the anti-vax movement if the vaccine proves to not be very effective or if it has unpleasant side effects. And with the coronavirus increasingly becoming a political football — liberals are far more likely to be extremely concerned about the virus, according to a recent Axios poll — any hiccups with vaccines could also strengthen religious conservative views opposed to them in different parts of the world.
WHAT TO READ
How the Hunt for a Coronavirus Vaccine Could Go Horribly Wrong, by Rachel M. Cohen in The Daily Beast
“If a vaccine is released that doesn’t work well or yields dangerous side effects — especially in the face of an historic pandemic — it could empower anti-vaccine activists and reduce support for other longstanding vaccines that have gone through rigorous and exhaustive testing.”
How the Anti-Vaccine Community Is Responding to COVID-19, by Katharine Gammon at Undark Magazine
“To be anti-vaccine in today’s world, says [law professor Dorit] Reiss, you have to subscribe to some conspiracy theories, because there is so much data on the other side.”
WHAT TO WATCH
Novak Djokovic Against Mandatory Coronavirus Vaccination
“I wouldn’t want to be forced by someone to take a vaccine in order to be able to travel.”
Watch on Reuters on YouTube:
WHO Slams ‘Racist’ Calls for Africa to Be Vaccine Testing Ground
“Africa cannot and will not be a testing ground for any vaccine. … The hangover from a colonial mentality has to stop.”
Watch on France24 on YouTube:
WHAT TO SAY AT THE WATERCOOLER
Coronaception. Widespread disinformation goes beyond anti-vaccine propaganda. According to a poll taken by the Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape Project in early April, 29 percent of Americans believe there is probably or definitely already a vaccine for COVID-19, and it’s just being withheld by the government. Another 32 percent say the same about a cure for the disease.