The anti-vaccine movement vs. COVID-19 vaccines: An exploration of the issue

The anti-vaccine movement vs. COVID-19 vaccines: An exploration of the issue

May 18, 2020 1 Comment Blog Post Snowfish

Poignantly, with no regard for the wealth of the nation it infects, the current pandemic presents a host of issues for modern day countries. Among those issues, nations seek to determine how to recover from the novel coronavirus. The modern anti-vaccine movement presents a key hurdle to that recovery.  

The anti-vaccine movement is not new

Opposition to vaccines has been around since the 18th century. In his 1772 sermon, “The Dangerous and Sinful Practice of Inoculation,” Reverend Edmund Massey of England referred to vaccines as “diabolical operations.” To combat these diabolical operations, anti-vaccine activists in London founded the Anti-Vaccination League in the mid-19th century. Correspondingly, the more recent anti-vax movement emerged as a result of a fraudulent study from Doctor Andrew Wakefield, published in the Lancet. Wakefield’s study, which the Lancet has since cited to be “utterly false,” claimed that there is a “connection between the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine and the development of autism in young children.” Despite the Lancet’s retraction of the article, news of vaccine causing autism spread across the globe and furthered anti-vaccine sentiment. As the misinformation continued to spread, the UK saw the dire effects of Wakefield’s falsified results. Vaccination rates for MMR dropped as low as “61% in some parts of London” in 2003. For reference, vaccination rates between 96% and 99% for the measles are “necessary to preserve herd immunity and prevent future outbreaks.” Ultimately, the effects of Wakefield’s study prove that rebuttal information does not spread as rapidly as the original misinformation. Wakefield’s study is one of the founding principles of the current anti-vaccine movement.

Why anyone would oppose a vaccine 

In addition to the now debunked study, anti-vaccine activists cite a variety of reasons to oppose inoculation. Among the reasons, activists reference religion, government intrusion, and individual freedom. This article seeks to review the issue of whether members of the anti-vaccine movement will choose to receive a COVID-19 vaccine and the wider implications of their decision. From a sociological perspective, anti-vax sentiment comes from a place of mistrust. Those that are accustomed to mistrusting the government seek solace in views, such as anti-vaccine, that are anti-government.

Will the anti-vaxxer movement change their views given the COVID-19 pandemic? 

The jury is still out. Since the onset of the novel coronavirus pandemic, the anti-vaccine community has engaged in conspiracy thinking and continued mistrust of government. According to UnDark.org, anti-vaccine activists have shifted between denying the existence of the pandemic or mitigating its effects. Prominent anti-vaccine activist Del Bigtree recently expressed his skepticism and opposition to a coronavirus vaccine. In a tweet, Bigtree posits “Who’s interested in an unapproved #COVID19 VACCINE that was a disastrous in animal trials.” In his tweet, Bigtree, a proponent of Wakefield’s redacted study, spreads misinformation about the coronavirus vaccine as the vaccine has responded well in monkeys in a University of Oxford trial. Bigtree’s views are not indicative of global vaccine opinions. Although the WHO recently labeled anti-vaccine sentiment as a public health threat, there is conflicting evidence of the pandemic’s impact on the beliefs of anti-vaxxers. Globally, the pandemic has curtailed anti-vax sentiment as surveys in the U.K and France have found that potential refusals of a coronavirus vaccine have decreased. In contrast, the U.S presents more alarming numbers. As public figures and celebrities tout their opposition to vaccines, more Americans are growing increasingly skeptical of inoculations. A recent poll in New York city found that “only 53% of residents were sure to take a coronavirus vaccine and 29% would refuse,” despite New York being the new Italy of the western world. In the past, government authorities have increased vaccination rates through restricted access to public institutions. Due to the life-altering nature of the current pandemic, private institutions may impose more regulations on their employees. Private companies could start enacting a COVID-19 vaccine requirement to start employment. Nevertheless, vaccine refusals pose important risks to herd immunity.

COVID-19 vaccine refusal: Not only a personal decision

According to the Bloomberg School of Public Health, at least 70% of the American population must be inoculated with a COVID-19 vaccine to create herd protection. As with the measles outbreak in Minnesota, anti-vaccine communities risk acting as carriers for the virus, posing infection risks for wider areas. Even with the presence of a COVID-19 vaccine, questions arise over its effectiveness. In previous coronavirus outbreaks, scientists were unable to create effective vaccines against MERS and SARS (both are from the same family of viruses as the novel coronavirus). Additionally, recent studies on the effectiveness of the flu shot find that “that flu vaccination reduces the risk of flu illness by between 40% and 60% among the overall population during seasons when most circulating flu viruses are well-matched to the flu vaccine.” The CDC study results crystalize the idea that even if Americans are inoculated, they still have a risk of infection. With this in mind, anti-vaccine communities pose enormous risks to the recovery from the pandemic.

However, it is important to note that anti-vaccine communities are not the only threat to herd immunity; pro-vaccine Americans also pose a risk because they do not get vaccinated. According to the CDC, in the 2017-2018 flu season, 37.1% of Americans received their flu shot. Unless vaccines are mandatory for a majority of facets in life (including private sector activities), it appears that the minority of Americans will receive a coronavirus vaccine. Historically, after the H1N1 pandemic, “seasonal influenza vaccination coverage among all persons aged ≥6 months in the United States was 41.2%”. The H1N1 vaccination rates reveal that even amidst a pandemic, it is difficult to inoculate the necessary percentage of Americans to reach herd immunity.

Additionally, health officials are concerned that the failure of Americans to vaccinate for the flu will cause the second wave of the novel coronavirus to be worse than the first. Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, warned that “the assault of the virus on our nation next winter will actually be even more difficult than the one we just went through,” citing the fact that “We’re going to have the flu epidemic and the coronavirus epidemic at the same time.” Redfield’s words provide a dire warning against flu and coronavirus vaccine non-compliance. 

Overall, vaccines only present one side of a possible pandemic recovery. This is demonstrated through the optimism that we see in the overall market even with small glimmers of success. Most recently, Moderna reported early signs of antibody development in patients administered their COVID-19 vaccine candidate. Treatments against the virus that minimize the disease’s effects can compensate for low-vaccination rates.

Alex Fishman is a Snowfish intern. When not working and blogging for us, he is a student at University of Virginia where he is studying Economics and Sociology. 

Snowfish has been helping leading pharma, biotech and med device companies optimize their stakeholder networks for almost two decades. Please check out snowfish.net to learn more. 

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