Anti-Vaccine Engagement Builds, Threatening Adoption
October 1, 2020
Since children began returning to school this past month and as pharmaceutical companies race towards a coronavirus vaccine, online engagement with the anti-vaccination movement and related conspiracy theories has grown, particularly in Europe. The trend points to the potential realization of public health officials’ worst fears over vaccine adoption: that misinformation will prevent people from getting the vaccine, limiting its efficacy in achieving herd immunity.
Anti-Vaccine Misinformation Gains Momentum
Engagement with anti-vaccination themes first surged over the summer, when Moderna and AstraZeneca announced positive Phase I trial results. However, it rose even higher among several global audiences heading into the beginning of September, amid anti-mask protests in European capitals and the return to school.
Since then, the focus has shifted to conspiracy theories, particularly those related to pharmaceutical companies and alternative therapies. Engagement with these themes has increased throughout September for many of the same audiences also engaging with the anti-vaccination movement. Conspiracy theories implicating ‘Big Pharma’ have been most salient for French speakers, spiking in mid-September to 70% as high as during France’s first wave of infections in April.
Pressure Building for New Lockdowns?
As audiences increasingly focus on disinformation, Predata analytics also indicate a similar level of attention to health systems in France, Italy, and Spain as in the lead-up to the first round of nationwide lockdowns in February and March. The trend may be an early sign pressure is building to reimpose some restrictions to contain rising cases in all three countries.
Even if there is sufficient pressure for European governments to reimpose lockdowns, the sustained engagement with conspiracy theories and misinformation threatens what is likely the most effective public health tool to return to normal life: a vaccine. Should the trend continue, public health and government authorities will face enormous difficulty convincing enough of their populations to receive the vaccine, casting doubt on their ability to achieve herd immunity without dramatic increases in infections and fatalities.
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