Misinformation and conspiracy theories about coronavirus vaccines could pose a serious threat for the U.S. and the U.K. to reach herd immunity, a new study suggests.
On Thursday, researchers with the London Schools of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine published a study that looked at the impact of exposure to vaccine misinformation and its relation to vaccine intent in the two countries.
In the study — which is under peer review published on the preprint server medRxiv — scientists asked 8,000 people about their willingness to accept a potential coronavirus vaccine.
Over half (54%) of respondents in the U.K. and 41.2% of respondents in the U.S. said that they would “definitely” accept a potential COVID-19 vaccine, when one is available.
However, after respondents were presented with online misinformation, that number dropped by 6.4% in the U.K. and by 2.4% in the U.S.
That could present a serious problem for the countries to achieve herd (or community) immunity — which occurs when a large portion of a community becomes immune to a disease, making its spread unlikely.
Scientists estimate that in order to provide herd immunity, a coronavirus vaccine would need to have at least 55% of community acceptance.
“Our work has shown that misinformation can change people’s minds and willingness to accept a potential COVID-19 vaccine, a decision which could threaten lives around the world. Reported willingness to accept a COVID-19 vaccine is already below the needed herd immunity threshold. Exposure to misinformation could push us even further away from that goal,” Professor Heidi Larson, the study’s lead author, said in a statement.
Among examples of online misinformation regarding a possible coronavirus vaccine, researches highlighted false stories about the pandemic, “such as that 5G mobile networks are linked with the virus, that vaccine trialists have died after taking a candidate COVID-19 vaccine, and that the pandemic is a conspiracy or a bioweapon.”
In the study, 3,000 respondents in the U.S. and 3,000 in the U.K. were exposed to online misinformation about a vaccine.
The remaining 1,000 in each country received factual information about the vaccines, and acted as a control group for the study.
Overall, researchers found that people without a college degree, those in low-income groups and non-whites were more likely to reject a potential vaccine against the deadly coronavirus.
Females were also more likely than males to refuse a COVID vaccine.
Specifically in the U.S., the study suggested that Democrats were less likely to reject the vaccine than Republicans; respondents who use up to 30 minutes of social media every day were less susceptible than non-users or those who use less than 10 minutes of social media per day; and those older than 35 were “significantly more likely to reject a vaccine after exposure to misinformation than they were before exposure.”
“COVID-19 vaccines will be crucial to helping to end this pandemic and returning our lives to near normal,” said Larson, who is also the director of the international Vaccine Confidence Project. “However, vaccines only work if people take them.”
Conspiracy theories and online misinformation play into “existing anxieties and uncertainty around new vaccines, as well as the new platforms that are being used to develop them. This threatens to undermine the levels of COVD-19 vaccine acceptance required,” she added.
The study comes just days after pharma giant Pfizer announced that preliminary results on its coronavirus vaccine suggested that it could be more than 90% effective.
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