Potential COVID-19 vaccine has revitalized anti-vaccination groups, warn health experts

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As Canadians yearn for the end of the COVID-19 pandemic and a time when they can kiss their loved ones again or get together in large groups without fear of infection, many place their hopes in unprecedented global efforts to develop a vaccine against the virus.But even though most infectious disease experts say the shortest possible timeframe would be at least a year or two, anti-vaccination groups are already well underway in online and social media campaigns, prompting doubts about the safety – and even the necessity – of a vaccine coronavirus.

“I’m just amazed at how the anti-vaccine story started,” said Dr. Natasha Crowcroft, vaccine specialist at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto, in an interview with the CBC. The dose health podcast.

“We really are facing a major, major challenge,” said Crowcroft, host of the podcast, Dr. Brian Goldman.

“And unless our public health leaders can generate a lot of confidence, it will be very, very difficult. ”

Indeed, anti-vaccination groups have become extremely knowledgeable communicators and “appear to be much better” than public health experts in reaching a variety of people with different ideologies – from those who distrust pharmaceutical companies to those who are protesting public health bans to curb the spread of the coronavirus, Crowcroft said.

The global focus on developing a coronavirus vaccine is unprecedented, says Dr. Natasha Crowcroft, vaccine expert at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto and senior technical advisor to the Organization world health. (Claude Martel)

Anti-vaccination groups in Canada and the United States are standing up for what they call “personal freedom” and “medical choice” amid the coronavirus pandemic – by posting content online and on social networks which not only targets vaccination, but also protests against the closure of businesses, the demands of physical distance and the wearing of masks.

Vaccine Choice Canada – one of the most prominent anti-vaccination organizations in this country, announced in a letter posted on its website on May 13 that it “is taking legal action against the Government of Canada and others for violation of our rights and freedoms ”during the COVID-19 epidemic. ”

In an episode of Digi-Debates posted on June 18 on YouTube, Vaccine Choice Canada President Ted Kuntz said COVID-19 was no more deadly than the flu – and argued that a vaccine does not was not necessary.

But infectious disease and public health experts widely agree that COVID-19 is much more deadly than the flu. According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, more than 8,500 deaths in Canada are linked to COVID-19. According to the agency’s latest data, deaths from the flu were much lower. The 2018-2019 flu season claimed the lives of 224 people, while just over 300 people died of the flu during the 2017-2018 season.

The CBC contacted Vaccine Choice Canada via its media relations email address and also sent a Facebook message to Kuntz inviting him to comment further, but received no response before the deadline.

LISTEN | How close are we to an effective COVID-19 vaccine?

As we continue to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, most of us are anxious to resume a normal life when we can kiss our parents or elderly grandparents and come together in large groups again. Many experts say that this cannot happen safely until a coronavirus vaccine is developed. In this unprecedented period, researchers around the world are working towards this goal, but it must be done safely and follow a careful scientific process. Dr. Natasha Crowcroft, vaccine expert at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, joins Dr. Brian Goldman in explaining how close we are to an effective COVID-19 vaccine, what obstacles we have to overcome to get there, and what we have to do in the meantime. 20:40

Part of the strategy used by anti-vaccination groups has been to take legitimate precautions from some recognized doctors in the United States that the search for a vaccine against the coronavirus should not be rushed and that it should go through all the steps necessary to ensure it is safe and effective – then misrepresent these comments as arguments against a vaccine, said Jonathan Jarry, a science communicator at the Office of Science and Society of McGill University in Montreal, who has the mandate to refute disinformation to the public.

“We have the beginnings of a perfect storm in our hands [to fuel vaccine misinformation] Said Jarry.

In the midst of a global pandemic and an unprecedented effort to develop a vaccine as quickly as possible, many people have questions and anxiety about the process, he said.

At the same time, said Jarry, the anti-vaccination movement is “apparently revitalized and … pushing a lot of misinformation and misinformation and lies and fueling this anxiety. “

Seniors have been particularly affected by the coronavirus, with many deaths occurring in long-term care homes. Physical distancing measures, such as this transparent barrier in a B.C. retirement home, is an effort to ensure the safety of seniors during the pandemic. Some infectious disease experts say it may not be entirely safe to hug elderly loved ones until an effective vaccine or treatment is developed. (Maggie MacPherson / CBC)

To combat this, both Crowcroft and Jarry agree, it is essential that public health officials, physicians and community leaders discuss openly and transparently with Canadians the process of developing the vaccine and respond directly to their questions and concerns – and they need to start now.

“There is a small chunk of the population that is fiercely anti-vaccination. And it is very difficult to reason with these people, “said Jarry.

“But there is a larger segment of the population that is hesitant about vaccines. And this is where our efforts must be invested. “

“The current situation is so different”

One of the main concerns that needs to be addressed directly is how a coronavirus vaccine can be developed faster than any vaccine before it and still be safe, said Jarry.

The answer, said Crowcroft, is that “the current situation is so different that it is possible to get through the development stages faster without cutting corners that could compromise security.”

It normally takes “years and years and years” to develop a vaccine, she said. “I mean 10 years would not be unusual. ”

Much of the reason for this, Crowcroft said, is that scientists often find a candidate vaccine but are struggling to get funding to move it to the next phase of clinical trials because each step of the trial is expensive. and pharmaceutical companies are hesitant to risk spending huge sums of money on a product that could fail the next step. In addition, there is often no guarantee that there will be a market for the vaccine even if it works.

But in the midst of a pandemic, the pharmaceutical industry is convinced that the demand for a vaccine exists, she said. In addition, governments around the world are funding the development of vaccines, which eliminates the potential for huge financial losses if a company invests in a candidate vaccine that does not succeed in the end.

“Governments are helping to speed things up by funding trials so that they can run in parallel and / or the gaps between each step are shorter, without the long decision-making times over whether the company wants to [financial] may go ahead, “said Crowcroft, who was recently appointed senior technical advisor for the World Health Organization’s measles, mumps and rubella program.

For this reason, there are more than 100 different candidate vaccines in different phases of research around the world, increasing the chances that at least one, perhaps more, will prove to be safe and effective, she declared.

WATCH | States are preparing for the impact of the COVID-19 surge in the United States:

Parts of the United States are preparing for the impact on hospitals as COVID-19 cases have increased due to a lack of political will to respond. 2:01

Due to advances in genetic sequencing, scientists’ ability to discover a new virus is also more advanced than it has ever been in the past, giving researchers a head start on determining which part of it. – target with a vaccine.

“Nothing in human history has ever been seen like this before,” said Crowcroft.

Finally, she said, amid all the hype as companies post press releases bragging about their progress in vaccine development, it is “important to remember that the press release does not determine whether a vaccine will eventually be used ”.

It is up to each country’s regulatory authority, such as Health Canada, to determine if a vaccine can be used and be independent of industry influence.

“Security cannot be compromised,” said Crowcroft. “Health Canada will ensure that. It is their legal responsibility. ”

In a statement sent by email to the CBC, Dr. Theresa Tam, Chief Public Health Officer of Canada, said that before a vaccine is approved for use in this country, “Health Canada conducts scientific reviews and rigorous vaccine testing to assess quality, safety and efficacy. ”

“Once a vaccine is used, health officials continue to monitor the vaccine to ensure the highest safety standards. “

“Empathy” and “building trust”

But if these kinds of safety issues, as well as other concerns, are not addressed directly by public health officials – or if the public does not trust them – anti-vaccination voices will fill this void of misinformation Jarry warns.

The most effective way to speak to people who are reluctant to get vaccinated, he said, “it all comes down to empathy, listening and building trust.”

It is important not to criticize people for expressing concerns, even if they are based on misinformation that has long been debunked, he said.

“If we ignore them because we don’t have the time or if we ignore them because we think they are stupid, the anti-vaccination movement will eventually polarize the segment of the population hesitant about the vaccine against vaccination”, said Jarry. “And then the vaccine intake will continue to drop. ”

We have already seen the record that refusing a vaccine can lead to the reappearance of measles, he said.

Crowcroft estimates that for a coronavirus vaccine to be effective in protecting the population, between 60 and 70 percent of people need to be vaccinated.

“I’m not sure we are doing everything we can to prepare,” she said. “We really need to start, you know, having these discussions with the communities and building relationships so that they have confidence in themselves. [public health] leaders. “

An announcement by the Ontario Medical Association to combat global hesitation about vaccines is illustrated in a bus shelter. (Paul Smith / CBC)

In her statement to the CBC, Tam said she recognized that “hesitation about vaccines is still an ongoing problem in Canada and around the world.”

“In collaboration with my provincial and territorial colleagues and other stakeholders, the groundwork has already begun to prepare for the eventual release of a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine in Canada, if and when it becomes available,” said Tam.

This work, she said, will include “developing strategies and resources to inform and educate in order to build confidence in vaccines as well as to combat the stigma, misinformation and fear around exit.” a new vaccine ”.

The Public Health Agency of Canada, headed by Tam, said in a separate statement to the CBC that “efforts to inform and educate to build confidence in vaccines are part of the agency’s day-to-day business” and that she would use similar information and social media campaigns “when a new COVID-19 vaccine is released to ensure that Canadians have the appropriate information to inform them of their choice to receive the vaccine when it becomes available.” ”

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