Novel Virus, Novel Vaccine: Communicating clearly and honestly around a COVID-19 vaccine

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This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

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The world first heard about the novel virus, SarsCov2 in January of 2020. Since then, millions of us have had to adjust to lives in various levels of lockdown. For all of us to return to times as we knew it – and be able to do those things that we once took for granted, like hugging our loved ones – we need to find a way to curtail the spread of the virus, and the disease it causes, COVID-19. A vaccine, or more likely, several different vaccines, will be crucial to achieving these goals.

Recent results from Pfizer and BioNtech indicating the success of their new vaccine is genuinely remarkable news. But there is a danger that people expect their lives to snap back to normal in the immediate aftermath of such exciting headlines. It is crucial that the public has an understanding of the challenges involved in ramping up the biggest vaccination programme the world has ever attempted. Because in order for this herculean effort to work, people have to be willing to have a novel vaccine, and that’s a big ask.

Take people’s concerns seriously, and don’t dismiss their worries as trivial. Listening to and respecting people’s anxieties encourages them to ask questions, and they are right to ask questions.

Vaccines usually take years, even decades to develop. With COVID-19, scientists are working at pandemic speed to licence a vaccine, or vaccines, in 12 to 18 months. The word race is used a lot, and we keep hearing that the process of developing this vaccine is the fastest in history. So, it’s not surprising that many people come to the conclusion: too fast, not safe.

But there is a big difference between people who are vaccine hesitant – those who are nervous of something so new and unknown – and committed “antivaxxers” who object to vaccination as a concept, and may associate it with various conspiracy theories.

Communicating clearly and honestly with the former group, before they become the latter, is going to be crucial to a successful COVID-19 vaccination effort. Already this is a difficult task. There is research from countries around the world showing large swathes of people uncertain, or very unlikely, to accept the vaccine. Research also suggests that willingness to get the jab falls after being exposed to antivaccine information. The WHO has called this an “infodemic”, and it spreads seemingly as rapidly as the virus itself.

More on the Forum Network: Managing the Infodemic: A critical condition for an effective global response to the COVID-19 pandemic by Sylvie Briand, World Health Organization

But experts believe there are things that can be done to reach the public with accurate information about a COVID-19 vaccine and addresses their fears.

First, take people’s concerns seriously, and don’t dismiss their worries as trivial. Listening to and respecting people’s anxieties encourages them to ask questions, and they are right to ask questions. Vaccines are given to healthy people, and they do have risks and side effects. The questions of a concerned parent are not stupid, and people are justified in wanting as much information as possible. But, if those same people feel judged, or dismissed for raising their concerns, the risk is they will lose trust in the institutions involved with in the vaccination effort. And once that trust is lost, it is very hard to get back.

Next, manage expectations: explain what side effects are possible, and what level of effectiveness is reasonable and likely. The publicity involved in this vast undertaking is an opportunity to teach people about the importance of vaccines, and how crucial they are to global health. To this end, at the BBC we are launching a new weekly series How to Vaccinate the World, to chronicle and explain not just the process of developing the vaccine but also what needs to happen in the vast ecosystem being assembled in order for a COVID-19 vaccination programme to succeed.  

On our COVID-19 Hub: Transparency, communication and trust: The role of public communication in responding to the wave of disinformation about the new Coronavirus

And, finally, don’t make anyone with honest curiosity feel ignorant or defensive. Take the time to listen respectfully to their questions, and let them say, “I don’t understand, please can you explain it to me again”; if that means coming up with several different ways to answer the same question, that is an effort worth making. Otherwise, anyone can easily turn to myriad sources of information, and those outlets may end up being more engaging, but wrong.

From the outset of the pandemic, scientists have told us a vaccine is our best way back to a life we all knew – but only if people understand and trust that a novel vaccine is safe and effective. To date, there has never been a licensed vaccine for a coronavirus, but scientists around the world have joined forces spectacularly in this effort. There are now dozens of candidates in human trials, with the hope that at least one or more will succeed, and that hope is a good story for all of us.

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Sandra Kanthal

Series Producer, How to Vaccinate the World, BBC Radio 4

Producer/Presenter - The Why Factor BBC Radio Current Affairs

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