As scientists race to develop a vaccine against COVID-19, there are fears that a small but active anti-vaccination movement could undermine their efforts.
A team from George Washington University (GWU) in the United States is studying the campaigners’ tactics and says their messages could hamper efforts to build herd immunity to the new coronavirus through vaccination.
Concerns about the safety of vaccines, combined with complacency about their benefits in fighting disease, have caused immunisation rates to dwindle in Western countries in recent years.
Neil Johnson, a professor of physics at GWU, warns that the voice of so-called anti-vaxxers could gain even more traction with any future coronavirus vaccine, and affect its acceptance if – and when – it becomes available.
"Whatever vaccine for COVID comes out, it does not have the benefit of (…) being able to say it's been around for 10 years, ‘don't worry about it’," Johnson told Euronews in a live TV interview.
"There's many, many years of science proving that existing vaccines like measles are safe. But we don't have that – at least we don't have decades of research – on COVID vaccines."
A vaccine typically is most effective in younger people, and they’re usually the ones vaccinated on a large scale – to build herd immunity and protect those who are most vulnerable to infections: newborns, elderly people and those with weaker immune systems.
But children and adolescents have so far appeared less susceptible to serious cases of COVID-19, and some parents will inevitably question the benefit-risk balance of giving their kids a new vaccine – especially if its development has been fast-tracked during a pandemic.
Surveys show people are generally willing to take a vaccine "after others have tried it," Johnson explained. "There’s a lot of distrust."
"The COVID situation is almost like a perfect storm," he said. The fact that so much of scientists’ understanding of COVID-19 remains a work in progress is proving a boon for anti-vaxxers keen to highlight unknowns and contradictions.
"One of their arguments, unfortunately, comes down to something as simple as: well, if science can't work out whether you should be wearing masks or you shouldn't be wearing masks, how can they possibly know something as difficult as the vaccine to try and prevent it?"
Breakdown in trust
Anti-vaccine activists also like to point the finger at the pharmaceutical companies that develop vaccines and could benefit from the pandemic.
A number of countries and business leaders have already pledged to make any vaccine accessible to all, but Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières, or MSF) is demanding a more specific commitment to selling any potential future COVID-19 vaccines at cost price.
Researchers say how leaders handle the pandemic could further affect how much people trust an eventual vaccine.
Professor Heidi Larson, director of The Vaccine Confidence Project, at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, has been studying vaccine hesitancy for years.
"Usually it's related to a history of issues or breakdowns in trust with government. And it doesn't have to necessarily be about a vaccine," she explains.
"If there's been another health issue that hasn't been handled well, or the public thinks that they haven't been fully informed or transparent, it affects their trust in vaccines, which are highly related to government – because they're regulated by government, they're often required by government. So if you don't trust the government, that's a problem."
She has a piece of advice for authorities seeking to roll out a coronavirus vaccine in the near future: start rebuilding trust now, and explain very clearly and honestly the process behind developing vaccines and testing them to ensure they are safe and effective.
"So they know what to expect. They don't want surprises, that's for sure."
Watch the interview with Prof. Larson in the video player above.