Nearly one billion COVID-19 vaccine doses have been delivered in less than six months, but anti-vaccine disinformation and targeted attacks on scientists are undermining progress. These threats must be confronted directly, and the authority and expertise of the health community alone aren’t enough to do this.
Even before the pandemic, I had a front-row seat to all of this. I have co-led efforts to develop vaccines in programmes, including a COVID-19 vaccine currently being tested in India. I also have an adult daughter with autism; my 2018 book, Vaccines Did Not Cause Rachel’s Autism, became a dog whistle for anti-vaccine activists.
The World Health Organization recognized vaccine hesitancy as a top threat to global health before the pandemic. As COVID-19 vaccines moved through development, the public-health communities anticipated considerable vaccine hesitancy. Teams of experts, including me, began meeting regularly online to discuss how best to amplify evidence-based messages, deliver public-service announcements and address concerns around COVID-19 immunization.
I experienced sinking feelings during our Zoom calls. Although certainly worthwhile, I knew that messaging alone would be inadequate. We’d already seen this inadequacy in our efforts to prevent measles from returning to the United States and Europe in 2019, and to bolster vaccination rates for human papillomavirus to prevent cervical and other cancers. With COVID-19, our pro-vaccine messages would be drops in a vast sea of misinformation, much of it poured in deliberately by anti-vaccine forces.