Misinformation and Fear about COVID vaccines

The pandemic has kick-started a digital infodemic that has been as problematic as the virus itself. Misinformation about the vaccines now could spark another health crisis

Published: 20th January 2021 07:21 AM  |   Last Updated: 20th January 2021 07:21 AM   |  A+A-

vaccine vaccination

(Express Illustration: Tapas Ranjan)

The 2019 coronavirus pandemic recently completed its global anniversary. We have seen a year of unprecedented life changes, panic and chaos. After more than two million lives were claimed by the outbreak till date, the world is finally embracing the new normal with renewed hope. The hope of vaccines! Multiple nations across the world have initiated vaccination under emergency authorisation with the aim to effectively tackle the Covid-19 crisis.

The emergency use approval granted by the US FDA to Pfizer and Moderna and by the UK regulator to three vaccines—Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca—are based on interim safety and efficacy data from large phase 3 trials with an average follow-up of at least two months after the second dose. India, being one of the worst-hit nations during this pandemic, has also started its largest vaccination drive, with healthcare and other frontline workers along with older adults with medical conditions being the priority. Two vaccines have been approved in India: Pune-based Serum Institute’s Covishield and Hyderabad-based Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin.

While the former has been tested for safety and efficacy in participants from both within and outside India, the latter is based on only phase 1 and 2 trials as of now. Both Pfizer and Moderna have reported an efficacy of nearly 95%, whereas the efficacy of the AstraZeneca vaccine is around 62%, considering both the doses. Second wave of fear: These statistics apart, what has hit all of us parallel to the second wave of the pandemic is the new fear and panic related to vaccination. The global picture resembles that of a year ago when Covid-19 was first detected. Now we see a flurry of news, information, debate, discourse and publications on the pros and cons of vaccination.

Suddenly, every other person I come across knows about the different phases of a vaccine trial, debates about efficacy, expresses doubt about the constituents of a vaccine, provides free suggestions about the “best” one to be administered and needless to say, indulges in endless social media discourse. Curiosity is but natural for the public, especially with an unprecedented illness and its prevention. Questions like, “Will the vaccine work, is it safe, when will I receive it, which one will I receive, can I choose not to be vaccinated,” etc., are common and flooding the daily discussions now that the vaccination roll has begun. When asked about any of these, I humbly acknowledge that the questions are best put to an expert in the field, preferably a virologist, epidemiologist, infectious disease specialist or a researcher in ongoing vaccine development.

The problem is, there are also a huge number of self-proclaimed experts, numbers rising by the day, who create false facts, propagate misinformation, snowball rumours and forward wrong claims on social media. Each of these actions has the potential to influence mass reaction to the vaccination drive and thereby public health on the face of an ongoing crisis. Is this fear of vaccination specific to Covid-19? Of course not. Anti-vaccination propaganda has been running for decades, supplemented by medical misinformation, disinformation, fake news and false claims that have affected major vaccination drives such as those for polio, BCG, measles and even the smallpox (which has been eradicated).

Suspicion of and myths surrounding vaccines in general are also driving mistrust about a Covid-19 jab, while the growth of the anti-vaccine movement is largely facilitated by social media. The pandemic in general has kick-started a digital infodemic over the last year, which has been as problematic as the virus itself. Falsification of information related to the origins, source, symptoms, treatment and statistics about the infection has daily gone viral, adding to the social stigma, fear, panic and chaotic public reaction to this global stress. The Centre for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) reported that anti-vax social media accounts have gained more than eight million followers since 2019.

I am sure each of us have started receiving audio, video and text forwards of the so-called harmful effects of Covid-19 vaccination, irrespective of the manufacturer. On the other hand, some claim one vaccine is better than the other due to various personalised and predetermined propaganda. Some others speak about the speed of vaccine development, intricacies of trials, number of participants, etc., that are often pseudoscientific and not substantiated by original data. Misinformation always travels faster than facts. A report by King’s College London and Ipsos MORI showed that one in three people have been exposed to anti-vax messages about the Covid vaccine.

The global coronavirus crisis and focus on a potential vaccine as the only possible way to counteract its spread have undoubtedly added to the pre-existing anti-vaccination propaganda and medical misinformation surrounding it. Which vaccine is the best? Let us be frank about it: We do not know yet! It is not a magical solution. Immense amount of work is put in, and scientific and administrative resources are exhausted for vaccine development. The least we can do is respect this temper. Moreover, the process of vaccinating millions is much more challenging than the process of its development itself. It is indeed ironic to see heated discussions spanning political, socio-economic and personal perspectives that pit one vaccine against the other, making the general public all the more confused about what needs to be done.

The same group of people who have been criticising the scientific community for failing to invent a preventive measure all these months are now sceptical about receiving it. We were so impatient in waiting for a vaccine a few months ago and now, when our country has started its rollout, we are worried about why it “could not wait for a few more days”! The famous psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud was apt when he remarked, “The most challenging thing is to bring satisfaction to humankind as they might even doubt happiness.”

After months of relentless suffering, the global community is finally getting some hope. Isn’t this what we all wanted? There is no obligation to take the vaccine, so each of us can agree to disagree in a democracy. While scientific scepticism is warranted, it should not lead to rumour-mongering. In today’s fast-paced digital world, authentic information is almost always at our fingertips, should we seek it.
It is our choice: to take the vaccine, refrain from it, get infected with Covid-19, or run away from it for the rest of our lives, but let us not confuse others who have probably already made up their mind.

Dr Debanjan Banerjee (
Geriatric Psychiatrist, NIMHANS, Bengaluru



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