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How to counter vaccine skepticism if a coronavirus vaccine becomes available

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The race for a COVID-19 vaccine underscores the role of vaccination in protecting the health of individuals and communities and maintaining the functions of modern society. The most humane and efficient way to move past the coronavirus pandemic will be to develop, test, manufacture, distribute, and administer a safe and effective vaccine to billions of people around the globe.

Yet the desperate search for a vaccine against the novel coronavirus comes when hesitancy and skepticism about long-established and highly effective vaccines is a real and present danger to health. Just last year, the U.S. had its highest number of measles cases since 1992, concentrated in communities with low immunization rates. Similar outbreaks have occurred in Europe, Asia, and Latin America. More complete acceptance of the safe and effective measles vaccine would have prevented these tragedies.

Across the globe, undervaccination arises from vaccine shortages, low quality services, inconvenience, or unaffordability. More recently, physical distancing in response to COVID-19 has likely led to the dramatic drop in vaccination rates as parents defer well-baby visits. In addition to these barriers, a more worrisome, long-term decline in vaccine uptake is a consequence of complacency and loss of confidence in the drug companies that produce vaccines and the experts who recommend them. 

Although vaccination remains the prevailing social norm, falsehoods about vaccine risks have been widely disseminated on social media, fueled by skepticism and distrust in government, industry, and science. These falsehoods threaten to erode public confidence in the value of vaccination against infectious diseases.

Our new report, Meeting the Challenge of Vaccination Hesitancy, produced by the Sabin-Aspen Vaccine Science & Policy Group, focuses on the factors that influence vaccine decision-making, the spread of misinformation through social networks and social media, and the research necessary to understand the sources of vaccine hesitancy and the best ways to counter it. 

To their credit, a number of social media platforms have been responsive to calls to stem the flow of vaccine misinformation. Recognizing that tech companies have deep intelligence on the spread of digital memes on their respective platforms—and the capacity to influence public understanding—our report calls for a deepened partnership between immunization programs and social media to advance vaccination acceptance in communities around the world.

The coronavirus crisis is a clarion call to confront the problem of misinformation and mistrust about vaccines. As scientists race toward development of a COVID-19 vaccine, any shortcuts in evaluation of safety and efficacy risk setting back control of the coronavirus and perversely adding to distrust of all vaccines. A lot depends on getting the COVID vaccine right—available as quickly as it can be demonstrably safe and effective.

The gravity of the current COVID-19 pandemic, ongoing measles outbreaks throughout the world, the hard last mile of polio eradication, and the resurgence of other vaccine-preventable diseases reinforce the need to act now to bolster vaccine acceptance everywhere. Vaccines are not only our best hope to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic. Vaccines are the prime tool to protect everyone against the numerous preventable infections that threaten humanity.

Harvey V. Fineberg is president of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and co-chair of the Sabin-Aspen Vaccine Science & Policy Group, a joint initiative of the Sabin Vaccine Institute and the Aspen Institute. 

Shirley M. Tilghman is president emerita and professor of molecular biology and public affairs at Princeton University.

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