To reach herd immunity for COVID-19, according to the National Institutes for Health (NIH), the United States needs to reach an estimated 80 percent to 85 percent immunity level.
As things stand, meeting that goal through vaccination will fail because, unlike Democrats who are being vaccinated in overwhelming numbers, almost half of Republicans–44 percent, according to Pew—are balking. As stressed last week to The Hill by a worried Francis Collins, the NIH’s director, “The hesitancy will begin to become the defining factor on whether we reach herd immunity or not.”
Collins has a daunting challenge. Among the biggest factors driving skepticism, finds Pew, is lack of trust in the vaccine research and development process as well as tepid trust in scientists themselves. Among Republicans, only 26 percent have a great deal of confidence in medical scientists to act in the public’s best interest, a percentage that has fallen since the start of the coronavirus outbreak. A March survey by Pew found, “Excellent or good ratings of health officials among Republicans are down 14 points since November.”
This collapse in confidence has coincided with growing censorship by Big Tech and government of what they call “misinformation” and “disinformation” on vaccine safety and vaccine efficacy. Instagram, for example, has de-platformed Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who runs NGO Children’s Health Defense and is greatly trusted by vaccine skeptics. Likewise, a coalition of 12 state attorneys general last week called on Facebook and Twitter to remove anti-vaccine commentary.
Because winning over Republicans is so critical to the government’s success, Collins is trying something new—a multi-pronged information blitz on conservative turf by participating on panels with Republican politicians and appearing on TV networks such as Fox News and Newsmax. Rather than belittling vaccine skeptics as “deniers” and taking a confrontational approach, public-health officials are stating they’ll treat the skeptics’ concerns with respect, as legitimate and deserving of answers.
“You listen to the audience, you understand where they are, and you address their concerns,” Tom Frieden, former President Barack Obama’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) director, told The Hill. “These are folks who really feel disrespected. They feel that COVID and the vaccines and the response has been politicized and weaponized, in their words. They feel deeply alienated from the government.”
To overcome the conservatives’ alienation, suspicion that scientists and others who promote COVID-19 vaccines may have their own agendas, and other factors leading to vaccine hesitancy, Collins recognizes a need for an enhanced outreach: “I think that means this has to be the moment where we really pull into this conversation all of the trustworthy voices.”
Yet, if those voices only include the same-olds and exclude those the skeptics trust, the government’s outreach will be seen simply as more propaganda. If, on the other hand, Collins was confident enough in the strength of his arguments to have them publicly tested by the likes of a Kennedy, and if he respected the skeptics enough to let them decide the merits of vaccines for themselves after hearing arguments from both sides, truth would be the victor.
Collins and the government could take other steps, too, to win the trust of Republicans. For starters, they could remove pharmaceutical companies’ exemption from liability for harm caused by vaccines, so that they became as accountable for vaccines as they are for any other drug. Without financial liability, pharmaceutical companies have an incentive to cut corners in rushing vaccines to market–the very concern of 77 percent of COVID-19 vaccine skeptics.
Next, they could improve the CDC’s Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS), which identifies “fewer than 1% of vaccine adverse events,” according to a 2010 Health and Human Services study (pdf). By so greatly underreporting harms—a failing the study attributes to physicians’ lack of awareness combined with their shirking of an administrative burden—the system’s reporting practices “preclude or slow the identification of ‘problem’ drugs and vaccines that endanger public health.”
At the same time that the CDC dramatically underreports harms from vaccines, it dramatically overstates harms from the COVID-19 virus. CDC’s own stats show that only 6 percent of the COVID-19 deaths that are daily reported in the news can be blamed exclusively on the virus. In the other 94 percent of deaths, comorbidities have played an outsized role: “For deaths with conditions or causes in addition to COVID-19, on average, there were 3.8 additional conditions or causes per death.”
By regulating vaccines under the same liability regime as all other pharmaceuticals, and by acknowledging problems as well as benefits associated with vaccines, vaccines are likely to become safer and the public is likely to become better informed. More rigor in the vaccine discipline would also help public health authorities determine how herd immunity can best be reached.
Democracy, too, might be a winner, since the great gap in vaccine hesitancy between Democrats and Republicans would likely narrow with common understandings, although maybe not in the direction that Collins et al. are working toward.
Lawrence Solomon is a columnist, author, and executive director of the Toronto-based Consumer Policy Institute. @LSolomonTweets LawrenceSolomon@nextcity.com
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.