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Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, experts have agreed that the only way for life to truly return to normal is through the development of a vaccine.
Vaccines usually take years to create. The fastest the process has ever been completed is four years. But an all-out global effort, supported by billions of dollars in investment, has the development of a coronavirus vaccine progressing at an unprecedented pace. Predictions vary, but most experts say a viable vaccine could be ready by the end of this year or early 2021.
As impressive as that timeline may be, a vaccine is useless if many people refuse to take it. Polling suggests vaccine skepticism could be a major hurdle to ending the pandemic in the U.S. Surveys conducted over the summer found that between a quarter and a third of Americans would not take a vaccine that had been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Those numbers appear to have gotten worse, recent polls suggest.
If that data proves accurate, the U.S. may not be able to achieve the level of immunity needed to stem the pandemic. Experts say between 70 percent and 90 percent of Americans will likely need to be vaccinated to stop the virus from spreading.
Why there’s debate
One of the main factors driving distrust of a potential coronavirus vaccine, experts say, is the concern that President Trump may force the FDA to approve an untested vaccine to boost his reelection chances. Federal public health officials have reportedly expressed similar concerns. More broadly, the emphasis on speed can send the message that the proper steps to ensure a vaccine is safe and effective aren’t being taken. A concerted effort to depoliticize the development process by the administration would help improve public trust in a vaccine, experts say.
Some of the distrust could be alleviated if the vaccine comes after Election Day, since the political motivation for rushing out a vaccine would have evaporated. The companies that produce the vaccine could also help build trust by taking the proper steps in testing and being open about its development process. Nine vaccine makers, including those companies considered the makers of the leading vaccine candidates, released a joint letter last week pledging to “uphold the integrity of the scientific process” in developing a vaccine.
Vaccine skepticism isn’t entirely about politics, nor is it unique to the coronavirus. Social science experts say methods used to combat the larger anti-vaccination movement could prove helpful in the push to convince people to take a coronavirus vaccine. That effort should include a nationwide campaign to inform the public about the benefits of the vaccine, along with more individualized outreach in areas with high levels of vaccine hesitancy. This is especially important for Black Americans, who are more likely to distrust medical providers because of a long legacy of mistreatment and unequal outcomes.
A handful of vaccines have reached the final stage of clinical trials. Despite optimism from the White House, most experts predict the first vaccine won’t be ready until well after the election. Once a vaccine is proven safe and approved for distribution, it could take many months before enough people have taken it for life to return to normal. “If you’re talking about getting back to a degree of normality prior to COVID, it’s going to be well into 2021, towards the end of 2021,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert.
The emphasis on speed is hurting public trust in a future vaccine
“Over all, the worry that is consistently invoked by those hesitant about this vaccine is haste. When health authorities repeatedly tout the rapidity of development — an idea underscored by the name Operation Warp Speed — they inadvertently aggravate the public’s safety concerns.” — Jan Hoffman, New York Times
Trump must stop politicizing the vaccine development process
“The Trump administration is muddying the waters with actions that lead to — at best — the appearance of a politically compromised FDA, the US agency tasked with approving a vaccine for widespread public use. There’s reasonable confusion: Is Operation Warp Speed designed to save the American public or ensure Trump’s reelection?” — Brian Resnick, Vox
A public awareness campaign needs to start now, not after the vaccine is ready
“Starting now is the best way to make sure that those who most need a covid-19 vaccine can trust it, afford it, acquire it and be protected by it.” — Bisola O. Ojikutu, Julie H. Levison and Kathryn E. Stephenson, Washington Post
The government and private companies must be open and honest
“We must level with the American public in a way that hasn’t been done during this pandemic.” — Former CDC director Tom Frieden, Wall Street Journal
Vaccine awareness campaigns should be catered to specific communities
“Different strategies will be needed to address different causes of vaccine hesitancy. … People concerned about safety will need reassurance; people of color will need to be engaged in a process that builds trust; and people worried about government overreach will need to be heard.” — Medical anthropologist Monica Schoch-Spana to USA Today
Special attention needs to be paid to Black Americans
“The African American community has very, very significant and historic reasons, including racism, segregation, and experimentation, to be very mistrustful. This is compounded by the fact that African Americans are significantly underrepresented among doctors and researchers, so these communities don’t have trusted messengers.” — Medical equity specialist Dr. Joseph Betancourt to Boston Globe
The public will be more willing to take a safe, effective vaccine than polls suggest
“Maybe I’m an old-fashioned fool, but I think that most people will welcome a vaccine, if the rollout is done right. Most people are desperately afraid of COVID. A minority thumb their noses, many of them for political reasons. How will this change when there’s a vaccine that [hopefully] changes the health risk equation to some degree?” — Historian David Oshinsky to Kaiser Health News
Democrats shouldn’t reject a safe vaccine just to spite Trump
“Automatic rejection of a ‘Trump vaccine’ is a mistake, and potentially a very serious one, which could help delay our desperately needed return to normal life by months.” — Bonnie Kristian, The Week
Low public trust may actually be a good thing at first
“It will take some time before 320-some million doses are available, so health authorities will presumably want to prioritize some people — health-care workers, the elderly, the immunocompromised — before moving on to lower-risk demographics. Low demand among the general public might be helpful, at least at first.” — Jim Geraghty, National Review
Lessons can be learned from the effort to combat anti-vaccination conspiracies
“As repeated measles outbreaks demonstrate, we haven’t done a great job addressing people’s concerns about vaccines. And if we don’t learn from our failed response to them, a coronavirus vaccine program will be doomed.” — Phoebe Danziger, New York Times
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