As vaccination against COVID-19 gears up in Europe, so are the campaigns discrediting vaccines led by the so-called anti-vaxxers. Distrust and even opposition to vaccines are very prevalent in France. Recent polls by Nature Medicine and Wellcome Global Monitor 2018 demonstrate this lack of confidence the French have in vaccine efficiency and safety. The distrust also seems to be shared across gender, origin and social-economic status. This latent hesitancy is what anti-vaxxers are trying to capitalise on. But for what reason?
Some want to gain political or social influence. Others are looking at ways to make a profit either via links to drug lobbies, health gurus and even vegan markets.
The anti-vax message
We travelled across France to hear the stories of these anti-vaxxers and to fact check their claims.
One such anti-vaxxer took us six weeks to talk to and he only accepted on condition of anonymity. He says that he has 125 000 social media followers. He also believes he has received death threats. The pharmaceutical industry, he claims, is tracking him because of his opinions. One of these opinions, in his words, is that "some of Bill Gates' vaccines have created big pandemics in certain countries, like India, where he took his polio vaccine". He also believes the vaccine gave 450 000 children the disease and it doesn't stop there. He tells me that "in other countries, like Kenya, it even caused huge sterilisation of thousands of young women".
He argues that his proof comes from a TED conference that Bill Gates attended. According to this anti-vaxxer, Bill Gates has also publically acknowledged that vaccination in Africa is doing a "good job at depopulating".
This unfounded view is widely shared by anti-vaccination extremists. Other recurrent conspiracy theories they use also include anti-semitic allegations and freemasonry, satanism, big capital and big pharma.
Another conspiracy he tells me about is connected to Moderna and how it allegedly "received investment from Merck about five years ago and they were already doing research on a vaccine against COVID in 2015". In addition to this, he believes "Pasteur has even registered patents for the coronavirus and for COVID".
The French vaccine pioneer, Louis Pasteur, of course, did not register any patent for a COVID-19 vaccine, as many anti-vaxxers claim, nor did The Pasteur Institute register a patent for the COVID-19 vaccine before the pandemic.
The history behind anti-vaxxers
Historian, Laurent-Henri Vignaud, is co-author of a book on the history of anti-vaccine movements in France. He confirms that there has been an increase in anti-vaccination radicalisation during this pandemic. He says that "conspiracy theorists in some respects have taken over the anti-vaccine message. Traditional, classic anti-vaxxers are people worried about their health and their children's health. They don't want any chemical products injected into their children. That’s their main argument, they’re concerned about health. They’re not concerned with making up stories about viruses or vaccines created on Mars to exterminate half the population".
But conspiracy theorists aside, Professor Vignaud, clearly differentiates between vaccine hesitancy and true anti-vaxxers. He gave us some insight into the historical profiles of anti-vaxxers in the country. He argues that "there’s a 'fatalist' religious kind of movement. It goes something like: God has decided that you will get sick, and you can´t go against the will of God. Then you have the pseudo-Scientific arguments: that’s the people who don't believe the virus is dangerous. You also have the naturalistic approach: you must let nature do its work. Then there’s the fourth argument, a political one, and that’s people who are really against the state being able to force you to take any kind of medication".
One of France's most active anti-vaccine movements is coordinated from a tiny village of 120 inhabitants. Marie Werbrègue lives there and she is convinced that her daughter, as well as other children, developed autism after being inoculated with one of France’s now 11 compulsory vaccines. Science has repeatedly rebuked this, but she remains convinced. She tells me that vaccines are a con and people are realising this. According to her, vaccines do not work, they're "a product that gives you side effects. Even if you get a vaccine, you can still develop the disease. There is nobody to help you in a customer service kind of way."
Marie claims to have 12 000 followers on social media. She is optimistic about her unrelenting anti-vax message. In the future, she thinks vaccination will be similar to health scandals experienced in the past, like those of asbestos and tobacco.
The lines between committed anti-vaxxers and vaccine hesitancy are often blurred. Sociologist, Jeremy Ward, is an expert in the subject, he says distrust in the French public health authorities holds explanations:
"The reason why there may be more hesitation in France than in other countries is that in France we’ve had more public debate about the safety of vaccines. We had the debate on the safety of the vaccine against Hepatitis B at the end of the '90s. Then in 2009, we had the debate on H1N1flu, then on the HPV infection, then on aluminium adjuvants, then on combination vaccines. The last 10 years have been very difficult".
Solutions to vaccine hesitancy
But how can the French health authorities gain credibility, oppose the anti-vax message and persuade vaccine sceptics?
Jeremy Ward has a few answers to this difficult question. He thinks "the first solution is to listen and to take people’s concerns into consideration because a first reaction might otherwise be to discard those concerns and just treat people as if they were hysterical mothers. That’s also full of sexist implications. We know that it is very important to not let fake ideas circulate without reply; all it takes is a little statement to say a report on that subject is underway. And finally, as well as good communication, we need transparency. We need to provide access to the inquiries on side effects and on undesirable effects".
Efforts to reinforce transparency surrounding COVID-19 are underway. This might explain why the latest polls now show more people in France are willing to get the jab.