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Vaccine experts see hurdles in fighting efficacy, safety misinformation

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People walk by the Pfizer headquarters on November 9, 2020 in New York City. Pharmaceutical company Pfizer announced positive early results on its COVID-19 vaccine trial, which has proven to be 90% effective in preventing infection.

Heidi Larson, director of Vaccine Confidence Project, says people are most concerned about the safety of a new COVID-19 vaccine. David Dee Delgado/Getty Images

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Hopes for a vaccine to combat this pandemic pushed global shares to new heights Monday when Pfizer said early data showed its vaccine is more than 90% effective. President-elect Joe Biden tempered some of that optimism with a reality check that widespread vaccination is still many months away, but some of the momentum on stock markets is continuing Tuesday morning with stocks across Asia and Europe moving higher, particularly in sectors like banking, travel and energy, which would benefit from a population free to move without restrictions again.

Now focus turns to confidence among the public that a rapidly developed vaccine will be safe and effective.

As part of our ongoing “Fast Track” coverage about the complexities of delivering a vaccine to the world, the BBC’s Victoria Craig spoke to Heidi Larson, who is director of the Vaccine Confidence Project, which studies public sentiment toward immunization programs. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation on the global edition of the “Marketplace Morning Report.”

Heidi Larson: We see that, in the U.K., 54% say they would take the vaccine once it’s proven safe and effective. And I think it’s 42% in the U.S. Now this was the most recent data, but that also changes. It kind of depends on how threatened people feel. More people said they would take it about six months ago when they saw that the fatality is so high.

Victoria Craig: Is that confidence what you usually see in vaccine programs?

Larson: No, confidence is usually, for childhood vaccines, is generally higher. It depends on the vaccines. Some people have issues with vaccines in general. But most of the time, it’s usually one vaccine, or some ingredient in a vaccine, or something specific.

The biggest concerns for a COVID-19 vaccine

Craig: So you’re constantly monitoring social media and taking the temperature of the public toward vaccine programs. With COVID-19, what is the biggest concern?

Larson: Safety. Safety, safety. I think they also have questions about effectiveness. Is it going to work? Most of these vaccines — there’s one that I’m aware of that’s one dose, but most of them are two doses. I think people’s biggest anxiety is the newness of the vaccine. That was an issue even around the H1N1 vaccine in 2009.

Craig: And, how quickly it’s been developed — you mean that this has been sort of a fast-tracked process?

Larson: Fast-tracked process, it’s a brand new virus, actually, the ways they’re making these vaccines is brand new, particularly the new one that was announced by Pfizer yesterday. These are new types of processes that have never been used before.

COVID-19 vaccine misinformation

Craig: So with these concerns, how big of a problem is misinformation around a vaccine program?

Larson: Well, we already see it circulating. And we kind of thought, and hoped maybe, that given the gravity of COVID, the some of the more skeptical people around vaccines might change their view on the value of the vaccines. But it’s, ironically, I guess, in some ways, gone the other way. I think it’s because of the hyper-uncertainty that there’s been an amplification of misinformation and overt protests, joining up with the anti-lockdown, anti-mask. But most of that is about not wanting to be told what to do by government. It’s less specific to the ingredients and the safety of the vaccine. I mean, I think as a number of people in the public acknowledge, and they’re absolutely correct, we only have data as long as we’ve had the virus, which is not even a year. So it’s actually quite amazing that this virus was really only characterized in January, and we’re here, not even to the end of November, and have results from a brand new vaccine trial. It’s pretty impressive. But for some, it’s just a little too uncomfortably quick.

Craig: So what can vaccine manufacturers, perhaps health officials, do to increase public trust? Should that work be starting now or once a vaccine is approved?

Larson: Oh, absolutely now. Without having the specific data about the vaccine, I think some of the health authorities have been a bit hesitant to start talking about any specifics of a vaccine. But, on the other hand, I think just starting those conversations with the public, listening to their concerns, trying to understand what the questions will be when the vaccine is ready, so they have the answers, I think we really need to get moving on that. Because we can’t wait until people are in line to get a vaccine and then start the questioning there. We need to find out what are those questions now, so that we can appease some of that stress on the system, which certainly will happen once the vaccine is there.

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