Is Covid-19 ready to change the minds of vaccine skeptics?

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Virologists say that the search for a vaccine is so widely supported that resistance will be eroded. (Photo AP)

LISBON: An American mother of three is a long-time member of online anti-vaxxer groups: a small but noisy global community who believe vaccines are dangerous and refuse to vaccinate themselves or their children.

But Covid-19 shakes his point. The woman who would only identify herself as Stéphanie, citing a fear of reprisals from the committed anti-vaxxers, says that she now has 50:50 to take a vaccine if we discover a respiratory illness caused by the new coronavirus.

“I really thought about it,” she told Reuters by phone from the United States, also expressing frustration at what she sees as the anti-vax community’s understatement of the severity of the pandemic.

“We are all affected by this virus, the closure of schools, young people in hospital, and they always say that it is a hoax. “

As scientists and pharmaceutical companies around the world seek a cure for coronavirus, other anti-vaxxers are preparing to fight any potential new vaccines.

“Refuse, demonstrate,” a Briton said on Facebook in response to a message asking people how they would react if a vaccine were made compulsory.

But some virologists say that the search for a vaccine is so widely supported that resistance will be eroded.

The latest national surveys by the ORB International pollster for the Vaccine Confidence Project (VCP), which monitors attitudes towards vaccination, seem to support this idea.

In France, where a 2018 survey showed that one in three people did not consider vaccines safe, only 7% would refuse a coronavirus vaccine now, according to the VCP survey of around 1,000 people on March 18, one day after the foreclosure of France.

In Australia, the VCP was also 7%, while Britain, where around 2,000 people were interviewed, and Austria registered 5% opposition in the polls a week later.

“If a vaccine were made available tomorrow, everyone would jump to get it,” said Laurent-Henri Vignaud, co-author of a history of the anti-vax movement in France.

This opinion was disputed by Mary Holland, vice president of the American nonprofit group Children’s Health Defense, who criticizes vaccination in the United States.

“I don’t think this virus fundamentally changes people’s deep concerns about vaccines,” she told Reuters.

“I will not be injected with anything”

Although the term “anti-vax” is sometimes associated with conspiracy theories, many people are just concerned about side effects or industry ethics.

Globally, one in five people don’t consider vaccines safe or uncertain, according to a 2018 survey from the Wellcome Trust Health Fund.

In China, where Covid-19 disease caused by the new coronavirus originated, investigations by VCP researchers show that safety is a major concern.

Several scandals have eroded confidence, notably in 2018 when a unit of the Chinese vaccine manufacturer Changsheng Bio-technology Co Ltd was heavily fined for falsifying data on a rabies vaccine. The company said it was “deeply sorry” for the incident.

Online discussions followed by Reuters – including Facebook pages closed with over 200,000 members, Twitter feeds such as advocating for children’s health, and YouTube videos totaling more than 700,000 views – have shown considerable distrust of the regard for a precipitated vaccine that would be poorly tested.

VCP director Heidi Larson said it was also the main reason for concern about the 2009 H1N1 swine flu pandemic vaccine.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a swine flu vaccine quickly produced in 1976 led about one in 100,000 people to develop Guillain-Barre syndrome, a disorder of the paralyzing immune system.

According to the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovation, a global alliance that funds and coordinates vaccine development, some 115 candidate coronavirus vaccines are being developed by institutes and drug manufacturers.

“I will not be injected with anything, especially an accelerated vaccine,” said American Vicki Barneck, 67, who believes that a strong immune system is enough to fight the disease.

Holland’s Children’s Health Defense said, “Some respond well to vaccines, others are paralyzed or killed.”

However, a 2015 article by CDC epidemiologists said that “several studies and scientific journals have found no association between vaccination and death, except in rare cases.”

“Hungry for a vaccine”

The VCP is conducting an 18-month study to track a conversation about the coronavirus online and to conduct global surveys to measure attitudes toward social distancing, isolation, hand washing and anticipation of a vaccine.

After analyzing more than 3 million messages a day between January and mid-March 2020, director Dr Heidi Larson said the vast majority were eager to get treatment quickly.

“People are hungry for a vaccine,” she said.

In Italy, which was hit hard by Covid-19, the anti-vax movement has “practically disappeared” in the discussion of the coronavirus, according to virologist Dr Roberto Burioni.

For a coronavirus vaccine to be effective, widespread adoption and annual vaccination will likely be necessary, said George Kassianos, immunization manager at the Royal College of General Practitioners in London.

There is also the question of how to distribute quickly enough to the people waiting in line for the vaccine.

“Essential workers will be the priority. Police, hospital staff, cleaners. Then the groups at risk, “said Douglas L Hatch, a doctor specializing in pandemic preparedness working on the Covid-19 response in San Francisco.

“By the time you get to the anti-vaxxers, they’ll have trouble getting it even if they wanted to. “

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