There has been encouraging news on the COVID-19 vaccine front in recent weeks. In a matter of months, researchers across the globe have developed treatment approaches that are ready for large-scale testing.
With more than $6 billion in federal backing, U.S. scientists have cut the development time for a vaccine from the traditional two to five years, to six months, with some predicting an effective treatment could be ready early next year. If they are successful, it would mark an astounding, lifesaving breakthrough.
“This is a truly historic event in the history of vaccinology,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said earlier this week.
As is his habit, however, Fauci followed his hopeful pronouncement with a sobering caveat: A vaccine won't work if people won't take it.
That is becoming an increasing concern in a country that has seen 150,000 people killed by COVID-19 but can't seem to agree on something as straightforward as wearing a simple cotton mask.
Researchers say at least 60% to 70% of the 330 million people in the United States would need to be protected through natural infections or a vaccine to stop the widespread transmission of the coronavirus. It may be a tall order.
Even before the coronavirus arrived, the country was dealing with several measles outbreaks as parents refused to vaccinate their children, then sent them to school, the playground and day care. Doctors describe a yearly struggle to convince their patients to get a flu shot.
Conspiracy theories shared on social media drove much of the anti-vaccination sentiment before the arrival of the coronavirus, and now it seems things are even worse.
Earlier this month, the nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate surveyed more than 400 social media sites and found an explosion of misleading and outright false information about vaccines. Facebook groups and pages spreading vaccination falsehoods had more than 31 million followers, representing more than half of the combined following of all the social media accounts they studied.
“COVID-19 misinformation is the equivalent of an ideological dirty bomb," Imram Ahmed, the center's founder, told the medical website Stat. "It has the capacity to hurt tens of thousands of people when it detonates in the moment that vaccines are available.”
As Fauci stressed, trust in a new vaccine will be a key element of its success. Any small setbacks, when coupled with a digital ocean of lies, could be devastating.
The best advice? When it comes to COVID-19, follow the advice of your doctor, not the posts your uncle likes to share on Facebook.