Saying “No” to Immunity

COVID-19 is a pandemic because no one in any country was immune to the novel virus which, it turns out, is highly infectious and occasionally deadly. We are not sure whether individuals who recover from COVID-19 infections will be immune to a subsequent COVID-19 infection. However, there are only two ways to become immune to the virus – recover from an infection or receive a vaccination. When a sufficient percentage of the population has acquired immunity by either of those means, the spread of the virus is halted, and our lives can return to a semblance of normalcy. The advantage of receiving immunity through vaccination is that you do not have to take your chances on surviving this potentially devastating infection. You would think that as we become increasingly fed up with social isolation and economic collapse, anyone would jump at the opportunity to receive a COVID-19 vaccination.

Over a hundred COVID-19 vaccine trials are well underway in many countries. How many will succeed depends on many factors, including the degree of immunity conferred, how long it is likely to last, and adverse effects. While several companies have promised much, it will likely be the end of year before we have a better picture on how the vaccine trials are progressing. But, there’s a new wrinkle: many people don’t want such a vaccine. And that’s a problem, because if insufficient numbers get vaccinated for COVID-19 (assuming its success and risks are acceptable), we may not have enough herd immunity to stamp out the pandemic.

Vaccination Shy

In the USA, 3 polls have been conducted in the last few weeks. The first was The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research survey of 1,056 adults. It found that:

  • 49% of Americans said they plan to get a vaccination
  • 31% of respondents said they were unsure if they will get vaccinated
  • 20% of respondents said flat out they would not

Predictably, perhaps older Americans were more enthusiastic than younger Americans, but African Americans were less enthusiastic compared to white Americans, 56% to 25%, and only 37% of Hispanics said they would get a vaccine if it is available.

A smaller study of 493 adults conducted by two researchers, which is currently under peer review, found that nearly 25% of respondents would not get vaccinated. When asked about whether they thought vaccines to be safe, effective, and/or important, nearly one-fifth (19%) of respondents were more vaccine skeptical than not. Among vaccine skeptics, 62% stated that they would not get vaccinated against COVID-19. By contrast, just 15% of those more supportive of vaccines than skeptical said that they would not get the COVID-19 vaccine.

A large study of 4,428 adults conducted by Reuters/Ipsos found that a quarter of Americans have little or no interest in taking a COVID-19 vaccine. These numbers are similar to polls taken in other countries. For example, only half of Germans would be vaccinated against coronavirus, if a vaccine became available, according to a survey released by YouGov, on behalf of the German Press Agency. A further one in four would perhaps get the vaccine, while one in five of the 2,056 respondents said they would not be vaccinated.Other European polls suggest similar results, concurrent with an increasingly larger and more hostile anti-vaxxer movement.

The Credibility Gap

Most of the issues driving these results are related to vaccine safety, with many not trusting governments or pharmaceutical companies to transparently report details about vaccines. A substantial number of anti-vaxxers may also be conspiracy theorists, whose beliefs are founded on poor or twisted information concerning vaccines.

So, in addition to getting a vaccine that works and has minimal side effects, we also have a vaccine credibility problem that is assuming global importance. The ongoing events in the USA are increasing mistrust between citizens and authorities, driving us in the wrong direction. Scientists, clinicians, as well as political leaders have their work cut out for them.