Vaccinations are arguably the greatest medical technology ever created. From the eradication of smallpox to the prevention of certain types of cancers, the success of vaccines is indisputable. The recent COVID-19 vaccines are no less impressive than their numerous predecessors, but are just as maligned by vaccine misinformation. The leaders in effectiveness are the dual-dose Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, which achieve about 95% effectiveness after two doses, while the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine has a 72% overall efficacy with an 86% efficacy against severe disease. While no vaccine offers 100% protection, they are all recommended to help bring this pandemic to a close and return society to normal. It is already evident that these vaccines are delivering on their promise to protect society as case numbers have dropped precipitously across the U.S. since their introduction.
Even with an aggressive national vaccination program over the past 8 months, we have only vaccinated roughly 53% of the population. Best estimates for herd immunity—where life could conceivably return to normal—are somewhere between 70–90% of the population. With the arrival of the delta variant, which is more transmissible and potentially more severe for the unvaccinated, the need to reach herd immunity is more urgent than ever.
With the pronounced success of the COVID-19 vaccines, you may be asking yourself how we have yet to reach herd immunity. While there are a number of reasons for this slow progress, false information is one of the more prominent factors and has burdened vaccination campaigns since their inception.
The threat of disinformation and misinformation is nothing new for vaccines. Public health officials have had to grapple with both since vaccines were first created. While the media platforms through which this false information spreads has changed over the years, the messaging is always the same: “Vaccines are bad for [insert reason here], so don’t get them.”
Social media has given the anti-vaccination movement yet another medium through which to spread lies. These new channels allow their injurious messaging to spread farther and faster than it has previously. According to a 2018 study, “The Spread of True and False News Online,” false information spreads six times faster than truth. Sinan Aral, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and co-author of this paper, had the following to say about his work:
We found that falsehood diffuses significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth, in all categories of information, and in many cases by an order of magnitude. Accurate stories rarely reached more than 1,000 people, yet the most prominent false-news items routinely reached between 1,000 and 100,000 people.
Due to this phenomenon, just 12 nefarious actors “produce 65% of the shares of anti-vaccine misinformation on social media platforms,” according to Imran Ahmed, chief executive office of the Center for Countering Digital Hate. This organization has labeled these individuals the “Disinformation Dozen” given how much influence they have over the spread of misinformation online. With the vaccination campaign reaching a critical stage in which most adults who want the vaccine have gotten it, and roughly a quarter of Americans unsure, these 12 influential social media figures may very well hold the future of this pandemic in their hands.
These individuals are alternative healthcare physicians, entrepreneurs, and anti-vaccine activists. Many have been spreading medical pseudoscience and conspiracy theories for years, such as the fallacious notion that “natural health” is better. With the arrival of the COVID-19 vaccines, their messaging used to denigrate other vaccines in the past have been recycled to target our best hope for ending this pandemic. These claims range from “denying that COVID exists, claiming that false cures are in fact the way to solve COVID and not vaccination, decrying vaccines and decrying doctors as being in some way venal or motivated by other factors when they recommend vaccines,” Ahmed said.
Varying Reasons For Not Vaccinating
As a result of society constantly being bombarded by vaccine misinformation, a number of Americans have become disillusioned. According to Gallup’s May 18-23 survey, 60% of U.S. adults report they have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, 4% have been partially vaccinated, 12% plan to be vaccinated, and 24% do not plan to be vaccinated. Justifications for not vaccinating vary among these 24% of Americans. The most common reasons given are:
- Wanting to confirm the vaccine was safe (23%).
- A belief that they would not get seriously ill from the virus (20%).
- Concerns about the timeline for vaccine development (16%).
- Mistrust of vaccines in general (16%).
- A belief that since they already were sick with COVID-19, that they don’t need the vaccine (10%).
- Concerns over allergies (10%).
These vaccine-reluctant adults are not distributed equally across major demographic groups:
- About half of Republicans (46%) do not plan on getting the COVID-19 vaccine, compared with 31% of independents and 6% of Democrats.
- Americans without a college degree are much more likely than college graduates to be vaccine-hesitant, at 31% to 12%, respectively.
- Vaccine hesitancy is higher (33%) among middle-aged Americans (those between the ages of 35–54) than among younger (22%) and older Americans (20%).
As discussed in “Media Distrust: Why it’s Increasing and What To Do,” political polarization has become increasingly pronounced since 2016 and has permeated into many aspects of our society. Clearly, this now includes vaccine hesitancy, which may obstruct further progress.
Combating Vaccine Misinformation
With the abundance of misinformation surrounding the COVID-19 vaccines, knowing who to listen to for good information is more important than ever. As discussed in “How to Identify and Combat Weaponized Disinformation in the Digital Era,” we live in a world of abundant information. But with the good also comes the bad, so you must learn how to sift through all this information to distill fact from fiction. Knowing how to identify credible sources of information is paramount.
One of the best sources for vaccine information is the scientific community. They are the experts when it comes to infectious diseases and are the ones who you should be going to first. The article “The SARS-CoV-2 Vaccines: Everything You Need to Know,” written by Dr. Patrick Maloney, a CDC epidemiologist, discusses various aspects of the vaccines, from the novel mRNA technology implemented in their design to how safe and effective they are. What is more, both the CDC and WHO are the leading authorities on this issue, so following the recommendations coming from these two organizations is prudent.
You should also be listening to credible news organizations such as The Factual, who go to great lengths to be objective and ensure that they are sharing credible information regarding the pandemic and not spreading misleading click-bait. As discussed in their article the “Best COVID-19 News Sources of 2020,”
The Factual used its AI-powered algorithm to analyze 178,845 articles about Covid-19 from across the political spectrum in 2020. The emerging data allows us to analyze trends in media output, including which liberal, conservative, and bipartisan sources have demonstrated records of generating the most credible Covid-19 news. As the U.S. passes 500,000 Covid-related fatalities, the need for fact-based, credible reporting on the virus is as vital as ever.
Beyond knowing how to identify credible sources, there is a technique known as inoculation that can be used to help mitigate misinformation. Similar to an inoculation against a virus or bacteria, which provides immunity to the pathogen, the technique of inoculation provides immunity to pathogenic information. Analogous to herd immunity, nerd immunity is a similar concept where enough members of society have been “inoculated” with a critical-thinking skill set to significantly decrease the spread of false information. If we are serious as a society about reducing the spread of vaccine misinformation that is clearly inhibiting vaccination rates, we must all commit to becoming better critical thinkers.
Inoculation is where (1) flawed argumentation used in the misinformation is explained or (2) the scientific consensus on the topic of interest is highlighted. In particular, explaining flawed argumentation is powerful as this learned technique can then be translated by the individual to other situations. That is, there is a positive spillover effect. For example, learning a type of flawed argument commonly used to deny the safety and effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines can then be translated to common flawed arguments surrounding anthropogenic global warming.
To best understand the technique of inoculation, you should have a good understanding of what an argument is and how to discern good arguments from bad ones. The best cognitive tools to acquire to help you to do this come from logic where there is a strict definition for how an argument is structured, what a good/bad argument is, the concept of a logical fallacy, and when it’s appropriate to reject an argument. Moreover, there are more than a hundred different types of logical fallacies, and it can help to familiarize yourself with the more common types.
This example is adapted from the “Debunking Handbook,” which highlights the detrimental effects that misinformation can have on society and goes into further detail about the technique of inoculation.
Common Myths Debunked
A seemingly endless supply of nonsensical claims is put forward daily about COVID-19 vaccines. In order to combat this salvo of false information, there are dedicated health professionals who readily debunk these myths. Let’s look at some of the more common myths put forward about the COVID-19 vaccines and why they’re wrong.
1. The vaccines were rushed, so their safety and effectiveness cannot be trusted.
Fact: According to the science, both the Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines are about 95% effective and reported no serious or life-threatening side effects. However, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine has a 72% overall effectiveness and was paused on April 13 for 10 days to review concerns about women developing severe blood clots. After a thorough review of the available evidence, the following salient points were concluded:
- The risk of this adverse event is rare, occurring at a rate of about 7 per 1 million (0.0007%) vaccinated women between 18 and 49 years old. For women 50 years and older and men of all ages, this adverse event is even rarer. For context, this is about the same risk of being struck by lightning (0.0002%).
- A review of all available data at this time shows that this vaccine’s known and potential benefits outweigh its known and potential risks.
Now, in regards to rapid development, there are numerous reasons why the COVID-19 vaccines could be developed so quickly. Here are just a few:
- Genetic information about COVID-19 was shared by China promptly, allowing the scientific community to begin immediately working on vaccine development.
- An enormous amount of resources were invested into research by governments as developing a vaccine to mitigate the pandemic was a top priority.
- A number of the developmental steps could be conducted simultaneously, which allowed for faster data compilation.
- Messenger RNA (mRNA) technology was implemented for both the Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines, which allows for a faster production time than traditional methods. And no, you don’t have to worry about these vaccines altering your DNA.
2. The COVID-19 vaccine can affect women’s fertility.
Fact: None of the vaccines will affect a woman’s fertility. There was confusion over this matter when a false report circulated on social media claiming that the spike protein (i.e., a feature of coronaviruses that plays an important role in how they infect their hosts) on SARS-CoV-2 was the same as the syncitin-1 spike protein involved in the growth and attachment of the placenta during pregnancy. This report argued that since the two spike proteins are the same, that getting the vaccine would then cause the woman’s body to attack this spike protein, which would severely impact her fertility.
It’s important to reiterate that this is a completely false report, but to the average person who doesn’t possess the prerequisite scientific training to understand the nuances of virology, it’s highly alarming. The truth is that the two spike proteins are completely distinct from one another, and getting the COVID-19 vaccine will not affect the fertility of women. What is more, during the Pfizer/BioNTeck vaccine trials, there were 23 women volunteers involved in the study who became pregnant, and the only woman who miscarried received the placebo. On the other hand, contracting COVID-19 can seriously impact both pregnancy and the health of the mother.
3. If I’ve already had COVID-19, I don’t need a vaccine.
Fact: Due to the severe health risks associated with COVID-19 and the possibility of re-infection, it is advised to still get vaccinated even if you’ve already had COVID-19. Further, we still don’t know with natural immunity how protective the antibodies are from different types of infections, such as symptomatic versus asymptomatic infection. What we do know is that people with healthy immune systems are getting an excellent antibody response with vaccination.