For a creature 70 to 90 nanometers around (a human hair is 1,000 times its size), the SARS-CoV-2 virus is mighty enough to split the world in two. Between the mask wearers and the barefaced. Pro-vaxxers and anti-vaxxers. Science followers and conspiracy disciples. In the pandemic, you are either one or the other.
Is it defensible, though, to have doubts about the science behind Covid-19 vaccines? For many, the answer may seem obvious and conclusive: That vaccines work is settled science, so stop with the nonsense and roll up your sleeve.
Yet skepticism about COVID-19 immunization particularly ought to be reasonable, even justified. A scientist and a social scientist have helped me understand why the public health interest calls for communication and empathy.
I take the word of Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, that the Covid-19 vaccine is safe and effective. I am as relieved as anyone that painstaking research and innovative science have brought a pair of vaccines to the American public in only months.
Exactly because all this has happened at “warp speed,” drug developers, public health policy makers, and others should be ready with answers. I don’t need a Ph.D. in virology or epidemiology to raise important questions, and neither do you.
Before the Federal Drug Administration gave emergency approvals for vaccines from Moderna and Prizer earlier this month, the narrative focused narrowly on drug development.
The remarkable speed of COVID-19 vaccine development represents a blessing and challenge for the public. Kenneth Getz of the Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development told me why we must shift attention from achievements in the laboratory to concerns of society.
“We’re now facing the last mile challenge. How do we communicate with the public and patient communities to generate trust in drug development activity that is 90% faster than historical experience?”
Along with getting vaccines distributed, then, we need a plan for getting answers to people.
Americans are not accustomed to take lessons from the rest of the world, yet we can benefit from the 2014 Ebola epidemic, according to London-based journalist Anita Makri.
To battle misinformation in west Africa, public health officials learned the impulse to “correct” or debunk must give way to empathy. Raising doubts is not tantamount to resistance.
“It became clear that historical and day-to-day concerns were underpinning those reactions, and those concerns were legitimate,” explained Makri. “One such mechanism is to have social scientists on the ground as part of the crisis response. [Another] way is to have dialogues with communities – again, this is something that happens a lot more often in international development.”
Certainly, Pfizer and Moderna deserve much credit for bringing out vaccines that, as Dr. Fauci has asserted, are safe and effective against COVID-19. Recent shifts in public opinion, though, strongly support the idea that information is a powerful antidote to the “infodemic.”
A successful vaccination program will be built on a steady diet of answers and assurances. Journalists, social scientists and policymakers who act as credible, patient communicators will prove to be super-spreaders of the welcome kind.
This op-ed originally appeared in the Boston Business Journal.