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That hasn’t stopped groups from portraying the vaccines as dangerous, the product of corruption, or part of a government plot to track citizens. We have fact-checked unproven or innaccurate claims that say the coronavirus vaccines can cause death and infertility; that all Americans will be forced to get vaccinated; that the vaccines are part of a larger plan to implant people with microchips.
Such claims seek to undermine Americans’ confidence in coronavirus vaccines — with consequences for the future course of the pandemic, medical experts say.
"The whole point of a vaccine campaign is to achieve herd immunity safely, and that only happens when a significant portion of the population is inoculated," said Dr. Seema Yasmin, director of research and education programs at the Stanford Health Communication Initiative. "And that won’t happen when there are large swaths of the community where there’s distrust in vaccines."
Many unproven or innaccurate claims about the coronavirus vaccine have circulated in online communities skeptical of mainstream medical interventions or the power of the federal government. Some have spread misinformation about COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic.
"I think our second wave of the infodemic is really going to be focused on the vaccines," said Sarah Evanega, director of the Cornell Alliance for Science.
Alternative health websites and Facebook pages are among the largest sources of falsehoods about the coronavirus vaccine, according to NewsGuard, a firm that tracks online misinformation. A report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a London nonprofit organization, found that accounts it describes as anti-vaccine on social media have gained nearly 8 million followers since 2019 — outpacing the growth of what it calls pro-vaccination groups.
Amid the spread of inaccurate information, social media platforms have started to take action.
On Oct. 14, YouTube said it would remove videos that contain claims about COVID-19 vaccines that contradict information from public health authorities. On Dec. 3, Facebook made a similar announcement, followed by Twitter on Dec. 16.
In response to those restrictions, activists have pivoted to hosting in-person events across the country, with the hope that news outlets will report on their claims, NBC News reported.
Some people may be susceptible to unproven claims about vaccines because unanswered questions about who should take it remain.
"Parents spend a lot of energy evaluating the risks and benefits of vaccines, and they are inclined to overestimate the risk and underestimate the benefit," said Jennifer Reich, a sociology professor at the University of Colorado-Denver who has studied vaccine hesitancy.
While the coronavirus vaccines were developed in record time, the underlying research behind them goes back decades. Tens of thousands of people participated in clinical trials this year to make sure the vaccines were safe before rolling them out to the general public. To receive FDA emergency-use authorizations, the manufacturers had to follow up with at least half of participants for at least two months after receiving their vaccinations.
Vice President Mike Pence receives a Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine shot at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House complex Dec. 18, 2020, in Washington. (AP)
Still, another worry is that some people assume the government rushed the vaccines before they were ready. Mixed signals earlier in the pandemic may have contributed to that impression.
In April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reversed course after initially advising healthy Americans to not wear face masks in public. In July, the FDA revoked its emergency-use authorization for hydroxychloroquine, a drug used to treat rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, saying it’s "unlikely to be effective in treating COVID-19" and could cause "serious side effects."
"So you can see how that would rattle people who are on the sidelines saying that, ‘You’re the agency that regulates vaccines. You rushed and then revoked the EUA for hydroxychloroquine … are you rushing this?’" Yasmin said.
Since May, at least seven polls have taken stock of how Americans feel about getting vaccinated for COVID-19. Confidence in the vaccine dipped over the summer, and most polls show that between 50-70% of respondents are now willing to take a vaccine. Scientists estimate that 60-70% of people need to get vaccinated in order to achieve herd immunity. They are hopeful vaccine education efforts will help.
Black and Hispanic Americans are significantly less likely to say they would get the vaccine, possibly because of the historical exploitation of minorities by the scientific community. Some anti-vaccine misinformation has specifically targeted minorities. Since rates of illness and death from COVID-19 have been higher for minorities than for white Americans, the consequences of forgoing vaccination could be especially dire.
To build trust, President-elect Joe Biden received his vaccine on camera on Dec. 21. Vice President Mike Pence received his first shot during a televised event at the White House on Dec. 18. Three ex-presidents — Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama — have said they would get vaccinated on camera, too.
The vaccination examples may change some minds. But for some people, the decision transcends politics and speaks to closely held beliefs about the pharmaceutical industry and government surveillance.
"If somebody has adopted something because it’s an expression of deeper identity, then good luck," said Joseph Uscinski, a University of Miami associate professor of political science who researches conspiracy theories. "You may not change their minds with a link or a fact-check, and even if you did, you're engaged in a game of Whac-a-Mole."
To reduce the impact of misinformation, Reich said public health officials need to be clear about what the vaccine will and won’t do, and how it will affect the rest of the pandemic.
"My No. 1 priority is not just to make sure people take the vaccine — it’s to make sure people feel good about taking the vaccine so we can maintain public health consensus moving forward," she said.
Editor's note: This story was updated shortly after publication to note Biden received a vaccine on Dec. 21.
Associated Press, "Twitter to start removing COVID-19 vaccine misinformation," Dec. 16, 2020
Canadian Medical Association Journal, "Facts not enough to change minds about health myths," Nov. 20, 2017
Center for Countering Digital Hate, "The Anti-Vaxx Industry: How Big Tech powers and profits from vaccine misinformation"
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Public Health Service Syphilis Study at Tuskegee
CNN, "Expect a quicker authorization of Moderna's coronavirus vaccine," Dec. 16, 2020
COVID Tracking Project, accessed Dec. 17, 2020
Food and Drug Administration, "Coronavirus (COVID-19) Update: FDA Revokes Emergency Use Authorization for Chloroquine and Hydroxychloroquine," June 15, 2020
Food and Drug Administration, "FDA Briefing Document: Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine," Dec. 10, 2020
Food and Drug Administration, "FDA Briefing Document: Moderna COVID-19 Vaccine," Dec. 17, 2020
Food and Drug Administration, "FDA Takes Key Action in Fight Against COVID-19 By Issuing Emergency Use Authorization for First COVID-19 Vaccine," Dec. 11, 2020
Interview with Jennifer Reich, a sociology professor at the University of Colorado-Denver who has studied vaccine hesitancy, Dec. 17, 2020
Interview with Joseph Uscinski, a University of Miami associate professor of political science who researches conspiracy theories
Interview with Sarah Evanega, director of the Cornell Alliance for Science, Dec. 4, 2020
Interview with Dr. Seema Yasmin, director of research and education programs at the Stanford Health Communication Initiative, Dec. 8, 2020
Nature, "The online competition between pro- and anti-vaccination views," May 13, 2020
NBC News, "Anti-vaccination groups target local media after social media crackdowns," Dec. 17, 2020
NBC News, "Letter targets minorities on Long Island with coronavirus vaccine misinformation, state senator says," Sept. 15, 2020
NewsGuard, "Misinformation about development of a COVID-19 vaccine spreads widely on Facebook," Nov. 30, 2020
NPR, "As Pandemic Deaths Add Up, Racial Disparities Persist — And In Some Cases Worsen," Sept. 23, 2020
NPR, "'I Didn't Feel A Thing:' Pence Gets Coronavirus Vaccine In Public Event," Dec. 18, 2020
PolitiFact, "Biden did not ‘confirm’ or support an agenda to microchip Americans," Dec. 11, 2020
PolitiFact, "CDC director says healthy people should wear masks," Sept. 18, 2020
PolitiFact, "Fact-checking hoaxes and conspiracies about the coronavirus," Jan. 24, 2020
PolitiFact, "Health misinformation site promotes conspiracy about coronavirus," Feb. 10, 2020
PolitiFact, "Many Americans say they don’t want a vaccine. Should we be worried?" Dec. 8, 2020
PolitiFact, "No, chip on COVID-19 vaccine syringes would not be injected or track people," Dec. 15, 2020
PolitiFact, "8 facts and 4 unknowns about the coronavirus vaccines," Dec. 17, 2020
Quartz, "How many people need to be vaccinated for life to go back to normal?" Dec. 4, 2020
Reuters, "Former U.S. Presidents Obama, Bush, Clinton willing to take coronavirus vaccine on camera," Dec. 3, 2020
Reuters, "YouTube bans coronavirus vaccine misinformation," Oct. 14, 2020
Tweet, Dec. 14, 2020
The Wall Street Journal, "Biden to Get Covid-19 Vaccine in Public Next Week, Pence on Friday," Dec. 16, 2020
The Washington Post, "Anti-vaccination leaders fuel black mistrust of medical establishment as covid-19 kills people of color," July 17, 2020
The Washington Post, "Facebook steps up campaign to ban false information about coronavirus vaccines," Dec. 3, 2020