Understanding the Factors Shaping Americans’ Intent to Get a Coronavirus Vaccine

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By Cary Funk and Alec Tyson, Pew Research Center

Sixty percent of Americans now say they would definitely or probably get a vaccine for the coronavirus if one were available today, up from 51% who said this in September. This remains lower than the 72% who said this early in the outbreak, according to surveys from Pew Research Center. And in the current survey, nearly 4 in 10 Americans (39%) say they definitely or probably would not get a coronavirus vaccine.

With a vaccine set to be approved for use in a growing number of countries, and already available in the United Kingdom, public health officials face a daunting administration challenge — but they also must convince large majorities of their citizens that a vaccine for the coronavirus is safe, effective and necessary.

The new analysis of Americans’ intent to get vaccinated highlights the factors underlying “vaccine hesitancy,” offering insight to those engaged in the global challenge of widespread vaccination. This challenge is made harder in an era when misinformation can spread far and wide in record time, as was discussed during the OECD Forum 2020 virtual event Communicating on Public Health & Vaccines in a Climate of Misinformation that took place in November.

The Center survey finds that Americans who are confident in the research and development process are far more likely to say they’ll get a vaccine than those who lack confidence. In fact, those with a great deal of confidence that the R&D process will yield a safe and effective vaccine are nearly 70 percentage points more likely than those who have little or no confidence to say they plan to get a vaccine (88% vs. 19%). Confidence in the vaccine R&D process has risen in tandem with intent to get vaccinated since September. 

Personal assessments of and experiences with vaccines also colour intent to get vaccinated. The roughly one-quarter of Americans who are very concerned about getting a serious case of the coronavirus are far more likely to say they plan to get vaccinated than those not particularly concerned (a difference of 26 percentage points). And people’s practices regarding the seasonal flu vaccine coincide with their intention to get a coronavirus vaccine. Those who say they get a flu shot yearly are much more likely to indicate they would get a vaccine for the coronavirus if one were available than those who do not.

The American public is far from uniform in its intentions to get a coronavirus vaccine. For example, while Black Americans have been disproportionately affected by the disease, just 42% say they would definitely or probably get a coronavirus vaccine, while 57% say they would not. By contrast, majorities of White (61%), Hispanic (63%) and English-speaking Asian Americans (83%) currently plan to get vaccinated.

Age also matters in views of a vaccine. Older adults — who are considered to be at greater risk and express high levels of personal concern about getting COVID-19 — are more likely to say they would get a vaccine if it were available today than younger adults. Three-quarters of those ages 65 and older say this compared with 55% of those ages 18 to 29.

As with so many aspects of the coronavirus outbreak, politics plays a role in attitudes about a vaccine. More Democrats and independents who lean to the Democratic Party (69%) than Republicans and Republican leaners (50%) say they would get a vaccine for the coronavirus if one were available today.

Political differences have been a hallmark of public reaction to the pandemic in the United States, with Democrats about twice as likely as Republicans to see the coronavirus outbreak as a major threat to public health. Even before the pandemic, people’s beliefs about childhood vaccines tended to align with political outlook. Following a Pew Research Center survey of 20 publics conducted before the outbreak, we found people in much of Western Europe on the political right, and those more supportive of right-wing populist parties generally, were less inclined to see childhood vaccines as having high preventative health benefits.

Also on the the Forum Network: Uniquely Uncertain: The impact of COVID-19 on vaccine hesitancy by Samantha Vanderslott, University Research Lecturer, Oxford Vaccine Group and the Oxford Martin School

Opinion toward a COVID-19 vaccine in the United States remains subject to a developing news and information environment. This is underscored by the fluctuations over the past six months in the share of Americans who say they plan to get a vaccine for COVID-19. And among the roughly 4 in 10 Americans who don’t currently plan to get vaccinated, about half of those (18% of all adults) say they could change their mind once people start getting a vaccine and there’s more information. 

What’s certain is the stark toll the coronavirus outbreak has taken: 54% of Americans now report that they personally know someone who has been hospitalized or who has died as a result of the coronavirus, a reminder of the human impact of coronavirus which now reaches across every corner of the nation.

As Britons queue up to take a vaccine and governments elsewhere prepare for the same, it’s helpful to keep in mind that public attitudes toward vaccines are multifaceted. Efforts to assuage the “vaccine hesitant” will need to be as well.

Cary Funk is director of science and society research at Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan "fact tank" that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world. It does not take policy positions. The center is a subsidiary of The Pew Charitable Trusts, its primary funder.

Alec Tyson is associate director of science and society research at Pew Research Center.

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Cary Funk

Director of Science and Society Research, Pew Research Center

Cary Funk is director of science and society research at Pew Research Center, where she leads the Center’s efforts to understand the implications of science for society. The Center studies the social, ethical and policy implications of scientific developments in areas such as climate and energy, emerging issues in genetic engineering, and food and space science. She has authored or co-authored a number of reports focused on public trust in science, scientific experts and science news and information. Funk has broad expertise in public opinion research and has specialized in public understanding of science issues for nearly two decades. Prior to joining Pew Research Center, she directed the Virginia Commonwealth University Life Sciences Surveys, national surveys on science and biotechnology. Funk began her career at CBS News in New York working on preelection polling and analysis of exit polls. She earned a doctorate and a master’s in social psychology from the University of California, Los Angeles.