Fifty-seven vials containing more than 500 doses of the Moderna coronavirus vaccine were removed from a pharmacy refrigerator by an employee in a Wisconsin medical center last month — inadvertently, officials said at first, and then they revised their statement. The act was intentional.
The inoculations against the coronavirus rolling out around the country are the targets of intense disinformation campaigns that have spurred concerns about safety and efficacy, even among health care workers. Leaders of long-standing anti-vaccine groups see this pivotal moment as a prime opportunity to leverage the rumor-mongering infrastructure they've built over the course of years.
The Washington Post reports that members of the National Vaccine Information Center are coordinating a "master narrative" that the virus isn't a threat and that the safeguards against it are. They're ballooning isolated instances of side effects into proof of general dangerousness; homing in on prominent online health influencers to spread their propaganda; and targeting African American communities whose fraught history with the medical community has primed them for skepticism.
The best antidote to bad information is good information. Trickier is figuring out how to administer it. Removing false claims is nigh impossible for platforms to do at scale without too much slipping through the cracks, and studies show the practice sometimes only makes people more eager for what they start to see as suppressed knowledge. Applying fact checks and reducing algorithmic spread can help. Yet at the core of this conundrum is the question of trust. Experts suggest "pre-bunking," or anticipating lies and filling the void before their arrival with facts. They also emphasize the need for honesty about where the vaccine is imperfect, such as with adverse reactions, unanticipated side effects and imperfect efficacy. Members of the public need to be assured ahead of time that these issues do exist, that they aren't evidence of widespread harm and that no one is trying to hide anything from them.
The public also needs to hear all this in the right places, from the right people. That means responsible reporting from media outlets, whether it comes from a national newspaper's editorial page or a local daily's lead story. The messenger can matter as much as the message, especially in insular communities suspicious of vaccines in particular or the government generally.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can probably do much less to persuade an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community to get its shots than can a nearby synagogue with whom the agency might partner. Physicians should be trained in how to assuage patients' fears; individuals should be taught how to assuage the fears of their loved ones.
The forces that seek to sow doubt are determined and disciplined. Those who hope to build faith in these lifesaving vaccines must be similarly committed.
FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE WASHINGTON POST