COMMENTARY: Battling an ‘infodemic’ a real concern as COVID-19 vaccine nears

Click to play video 'Tim Caulfield warns COVID-19 misinformation is having direct impact on vaccination hesitancy' Tim Caulfield warns COVID-19 misinformation is having direct impact on vaccination hesitancy
University of Alberta law professor and Canada research chair in health law and policy Tim Caulfield says recent research shows the adverse impact misinformation is having on many people – Nov 18, 2020

COVID-19 has taken the lives of over 1.4 million people worldwide. But we are now closer than ever to a vaccine.

With Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca leading the pack in COVID-19 vaccine development, there is glimmering hope for the near future. Governments in the U.S., U.K. and Germany have already made plans to start rolling out vaccines to their populations most vulnerable as early as next month.

But global efforts to put an end to the pandemic will prove challenging without the public onside.  After all, a vaccine is only as effective as its distribution.

“The coronavirus disease is the first pandemic in history in which technology and social media are being used on a massive scale to keep people safe, informed, productive and connected,” the World Health Organization has said.

Read more: Misinformation is spreading as fast as coronavirus. It will ‘take a village’ to fight it

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But just as the virus has spread around the globe, so too has misinformation. As early as February the WHO warned of an “infodemic,” a flood of fake news and misinformation being disseminated about the pandemic over social media. From Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, WhatsApp to a slew of other social media hubs, misinformation has reached an epic scale.

U.S. President Donald Trump has been called out as the biggest superspreader of COVID-19 misinformation, according to findings in a study conducted last month by Cornell University.

With skepticism mounting, global efforts to control this virus may be seriously jeopardized if people are unwilling to roll up their sleeves for vaccination.

Vaccine hesitancy is a real and growing concern across the globe, including right here in Canada.

Click to play video 'Canadians could get first COVID-19 vaccine in early 2021' Canadians could get first COVID-19 vaccine in early 2021
Canadians could get first COVID-19 vaccine in early 2021 – Nov 27, 2020

I’ve had surprising conversations with my own parents about their trepidation in regards to vaccination. They are not anti-vaxxers by any means. My mother was a health-care professional for over 40 years; she worked tirelessly on the front lines during the SARS outbreak and understands the seriousness of infectious disease first-hand. Both my mother and father are in their 70s, both with diabetes, which puts them at higher risk for COVID-19 complications, but even still, they have reservations about vaccination — largely fuelled by social media.

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This week alone my father forwarded me two videos that were sent to him on WhatsApp, one outlining how to legally decline vaccination and another offering various reasons not to vaccinate against COVID-19. After a few moments of watching, I quickly asked him to delete the videos and not share any further.

My parents are smart individuals, with educational backgrounds in science. That is what makes much of this misinformation and fake news around COVID-19 so scary — so many people fall prey to it.

Much of the rhetoric is not the usual anti-vax sentiment. It is not even necessarily anti-science or anti-intellectual, but it is false.  Yet repeated exposure to such content has the ability to sway perceptions around not only the vaccine, but even the virus overall.

Read more: Canada’s coronavirus vaccine rollout — Who will get it first?

In summer polling, a majority of respondents said they were in favour of the Canadian government’s requiring that people get inoculated once a vaccine has been developed. However, the latest polling finds that is no longer the case, with 54 per cent of respondents saying a vaccine should be voluntary (an 11 percentage point increase from July) while only 39 per cent say getting a vaccine should be mandatory, a marked 18 percentage point decline from July. There is a noticeable shift in when and even if people want to get vaccinated.

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Much of the concern lies around the speed with which the vaccine has been developed and subsequent safety. A Statistics Canada survey in August found some Canadians are also worried about possible side effects of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Not surprisingly, much of the fake news that is swirling around feeds into exactly these fears. While it is true that the average vaccine takes at least 10 years to develop, the context of this particular development is critical when looking at timelines.

Click to play video 'Coronavirus: The challenges in distributing vaccines' Coronavirus: The challenges in distributing vaccines
Coronavirus: The challenges in distributing vaccines – Nov 26, 2020

We have to take into account the work that was done on previous coronaviruses, like SARS and MERS, paired with the global prioritization that has been put on a COVID-19 vaccine. With the initial research groundwork laid and usual administrative red tape for funding and approvals avoided,  researchers have been able to shave anywhere between six and nine years off the development process.

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Our federal government and public health officials have acknowledged they have cut red tape in order to speed up approvals, but they are insistent that they will not take shortcuts when it comes to safety, quality and efficacy.

Health Canada “is one of the most stringent regulatory authorities in the world,” chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam has said. She wants Canadians to understand that the speed with which these vaccines are being developed does not diminish our government’s commitment to their safety.

Read more: AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine manufacturing error raises questions

Aware of the misinformation that is spreading, the government is planning a campaign to educate the public on vaccination. A group of scientists have already taken steps by using the same social media tools for education.

For example, the hashtag #TeamHalo is being used on platforms like TikTok and Twitter by specialists working on vaccine development to debunk falsehoods and provide answers to questions everyday people may have on development.

To date, Canada has agreements with five vaccine manufacturers, with two more in the final stages of a deal. We are slated to receive 194 million doses with options for an additional 220 doses for purchase.

The Public Health Agency of Canada is working closely with the Canadian Armed Forces on a distribution plan. In order for us to achieve herd immunity, roughly 70 per cent of Canadians would need to be vaccinated.

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But with a growing minority of Canadians on the fence about vaccination, we could be putting ourselves at risk of not getting there.

Meera Estrada is a cultural commentator and co-host of kultur’D! on Global News Radio 640 Toronto.