Coronavirus vaccine skepticism and how to fight it, according to experts

News that pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and BioNTech’s coronavirus vaccine candidate showed 90% efficacy in phase 3 clinical trial on Monday was cheered by politicians and scientists alike, with America’s top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci even calling the results “extraordinary.”

But what good will a vaccine be if Americans are hesitant to receive it? A survey of 100,000 people conducted by the Pew Research Center from September, for instance, found that only about half (51%) of those questioned would receive the COVID-19 vaccine if one were available today, a 21 percentage point drop from May when a similar survey was conducted.

“Even if we peel back this political veneer, these concerns are not unusual; a new virus, a new vaccine — a degree of skepticism is not unreasonable,” Schaffner said.
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“We’re all excited about Pfizer, it’s light at the end of the tunnel,” Vanderbilt University Medical Professor Dr. William Schaffner told Fox News in an interview. “We never anticipated a vaccine that was over 90% effective,” he said, noting that a vaccine candidate that showed 70% efficacy would have been considered “great” by expert standards.

That said, “these are early days,” Schaffner said, noting data is still needed for how the vaccine reacts in pregnant women, the over 65 population, and children, for instance. 

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“Not enough safety data at this time, but we are balancing that against 1,000 people dying a day,” he added. (The company is still awaiting data on safety, which it expects to be made available by the third week of November, according to a press release.

Convincing the general population that any potential coronavirus vaccine is safe and effective starts with first convincing the medical community of the same, said Schaffner. 

“If politicians can stand back and let the scientists and public health people be in the front, that will go a long way with the medical community, where skepticism is just as bad as it is in the public,” he said, noting transparency from federal agencies such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is paramount.

In fact, the CDC on Monday announced it is launching a national strategy to reinforce confidence in COVID-19 vaccines amid distrust among both the medical community and public. 

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“To promote the vaccine and to provide assurance, the medical community will have to be shown first,” he said, adding that the degree of skepticism on the part of the medical community is “underappreciated.” 

“Even if we peel back this political veneer, these concerns are not unusual; a new virus, a new vaccine — a degree of skepticism is not unreasonable,” he added. 

Schaffner warned that potential side effects could also make the general population wary of receiving it, noting that Pfizer’s candidate being a two-dose regime will likely result in “a lot of local reactions” such as soreness around the injection site. 

“The second dose is a bit worse than the first, people can feel crummy for a day or so afterward, more so than the flu vaccine,” he said. “So [scientists] will have to be very clear that the short-term feeling crummy is going to be worth the protection from COVID.” 

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(It’s worth noting that the same Pew Research survey from September also found that even among those who said they would “probably or definitely would” receive a COVID-19 vaccine if one were available today, some 57% said minor side effects would “reduce the likelihood of them getting vaccinated at least a little.”) 

Speaking to Fox News following the Pfizer news, Dr. John Whyte, the chief medical officer of the health care website WebMD, also remarked that the reported 90% efficacy rate was encouraging, “but we still need to see the data” and also spoke to concerns that federal agencies such as the FDA have become “too politicized,” jeopardizing the population’s faith in a safe and effective vaccine. 

“We also can’t just accept what a manufacturer puts out —  that’s why it will be so important to hear from independent experts and scientists,” he said. 

“I want to hear what the FDA Advisory Committee says about safety and efficacy,” he said, adding he would like to see “all the data put out in the public domain so we can have a robust discussion.”

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 “I hope the data does show [more than] 90% efficacy but we need to see all of it. That’s what’s going to inspire confidence,” he said. 

Meanwhile, Dr. Katie Passaretti, medical director of infection prevention at Atrium Health’s Carolinas Medical Center, told Fox News that vaccine hesitancy isn’t unique to COVID-19. Rather, she said, this issue has “become a major concern” among infectious disease experts. She pointed to declines in measles vaccine coverage as a key example. 

Education is of the greatest importance when encouraging Americans to receive the COVID-19 vaccine and others, she said. 

“Vaccines are effective if a large chunk of the population is inoculated,” said Passaretti. 

Fox News’ Alexandria Hein and Kayla Rivas contributed to this report. 

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