The World Health Organization reports that there are at least 70 vaccines in development around the world right now, three of which have begun human trials. If all goes well, researchers and public health officials hope to have a vaccine available by the second half of 2021.
But those who promote anti-vaccine views aren’t waiting. They’re out there now on social media, cultivating conspiracy theories and planting seeds of doubt that could limit a future vaccine’s success.
Larry Cook, an anti-vaccine proponent with almost 50,000 subscribers on YouTube, posted on Facebook: “Make no mistake, the purpose of the coronavirus is to help usher in vaccine mandates. Be woke. Know the Plan. Prepare. Resist.” The HighWire, a radio show hosted by film producer and anti-vaccine activist Del Bigtree, pushed the unsupported claim that COVID-19 created in a lab and suggested it may have had something to do with vaccine development. A slew of conspiracies are also cropping up on Facebook groups geared toward vaccine skepticism.
“To push anti-vaccine conspiracy theories now, I think is somewhat to be expected simply because there is a lot of uncertainty,” said Dr. Matthew Motta, an assistant professor of political science who specializes in public health and science communication at Oklahoma State University. “It makes it very easy to inject those narratives, because they’re very hard to be proven wrong.”
Anti-vaccine sentiment has existed for centuries but has picked up steam in the last few decades. Motta says a reason for this is that vaccines can easily become a scapegoat for phenomena that aren’t well understood.
“Vaccines become a ready explanation for the unexplainable,” said Motta, pointing to a notorious report published in 1998, and later retracted, that falsely linked the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine with autism in children. “And perhaps the most basic reason why the anti-vaccine movement exists is because it gives people an answer to that question.”
Many of the ideas propagated by anti-vaccine activists are squarely rooted in a distrust for authority. In a conversation about the anti-science movement with CBSN Originals, Asheley Landrum, an assistant professor of science communication at Texas Tech University, says suspicion of authoritative figures or groups is a common thread running through many anti-science conspiracy theories.
“We see similar types of science denial propagate through the internet on social media, where communities of individuals will either share information that they believe demonstrates the corrupt nature of authorities in a variety of different science topics from vaccination to climate change to evolution to genetically modified organisms,” Landrum explained. “All of these different issues have that in common, where people want to reject the findings that science has delivered by doubting the credibility of those who have discovered that.”
Motta analyzed two sets of Pew Research Survey data that had overlapping respondents (one on Americans’ concerns over COVID-19 and the other on Americans’ views on childhood vaccines), and found a 40% overlap between those skeptical of vaccine safety and those who believe the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is exaggerating the risks of COVID-19.
The consequences of a conspiracy campaign from anti-vaccine groups could be lethal in the time of the coronavirus pandemic. A vaccine’s efficacy relies on its widespread use. Depending on a disease’s contagiousness, it can require that upwards of 80% to 95% of the population get vaccinated in order to achieve what’s called herd immunity. If swaths of the population refuse to get a vaccine based on misinformation, then outbreaks of the disease will continue to erupt, with dire consequences.
“If a lot of people in one geographic cluster don’t get vaccinated, then you have the opportunity for spread,” said Motta. “And if there are vulnerable people, people who have a condition that prevents them from getting vaccinated, come into contact with those groups, well, then they’re potentially going to get sick.”
Right now, with the death toll still rising and many Americans living in lockdown, fear of the virus is pervasive. Doctors and scientists are learning more about it each day, but there are still many unknowns about how the future will unfold. This environment of uncertainty and anxiety allows conspiracies to incubate and spread, and there doesn’t seem to be a clear end in sight.
“There is a lot of uncertainty around COVID-19 as scientists and health officials learn more and more about the virus. Conspiracies fester in uncertain environments,” wrote Landrum in an email. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see more and more conspiracies about the origins of COVID-19 as well as its pervasiveness and its severity.”
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