Conspiracies fuel vaccine hesitancy and could undermine COVID-19 vaccination efforts

Since the COVID-19 pandemic emerged in December 2019, public health and vaccines have been a part of the daily news. Even though COVID-19 has caused significant disruption and death, surveys have found that a sizeable proportion of the population is resistant to taking a COVID-19 vaccine: surveys in France found that 26% of respondents would not take a COVID-19 vaccine, and studies in the U.S. and Italy found that only 58% and 59% of respondents, respectively, intended to be vaccinated. While we now have two approved vaccines in the U.S. for use against COVID-19, vaccines cannot stop a pandemic – only vaccinations can. Thus vaccine hesitancy may threaten efforts to control the pandemic. Much COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy stems from conspiracy theories involving Bill Gates, 5G, and microchips. This blog post will review the role that conspiracy theories and misinformation have played in the evolution of vaccine hesitancy.

COVID-19 Vaccine Hesitancy: A Far-Fetched Conspiracy

“The COVID-19 pandemic was intentionally started by global elites (including Bill Gates) in order to roll out vaccines with tracking microchips that would later be activated by 5G for broad population control.

Sound far-fetched? It is. This conspiracy theory has spread like wildfire: as of July 2020: 71% of US adults had heard this conspiracy. Of those, 1/3 said it was “definitely” or “probably” true. We are living in extraordinary times for mis- and disinformation. With President Trump’s increasing politicization of a vaccination effort, trust in the government assuring vaccine safety and efficacy is eroding. This loss of trust fuels vaccine hesitancy and fans the flames of conspiracy theories like the one above.

Diminished confidence in COVID-19 vaccines could increase hesitancy to other vaccines for common diseases like measles, rubella, diphtheria, and pertussis as well. This negative shift in vaccine attitudes is especially dangerous in the pandemic context: in the U.S., avoidance of non-essential medical visits has caused pediatric vaccination rates to plummet and globally, vaccination campaigns have been suspended. Alternative facts about vaccination are not new – much of the anti-vaccine movement has been based on misinformation from agents with ulterior motives. This blog post will explore two main figures in the rise of alternative vaccine facts: Andrew Wakefield and Bob Sears.

The man who started a disinformation movement: Andrew Wakefield

The anti-vaccine movement, in its current form, really began in 1998 after Andrew Wakefield’s publication of his fraudulent article in The Lancet. This false paper linked measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccination with autism using a sample of only 12 children. After an investigation, Wakefield was found guilty of falsification of data and lost his medical license. However, it took The Lancet until 2010 – 12 years – to retract his paper. Wakefield’s article ignited panic: causing parents to worry that the risks of vaccine complications outweighed the benefits of avoiding disease.

Why did he do it? Wakefield planned a number of potentially lucrative business ventures to take advantage of a link between MMR and autism. An investigative report by Brian Deer entitled “How the vaccine crisis was meant to make money” delves into Wakefield’s conflicts of interest and motivations for publishing his fraudulent paper.  Wakefield was planning to develop diagnostic kits to identify autistic entercolitis, the syndrome he describes in the paper, for which he forecasted $44 million in annual profits. He expected these kits would be popularized by testing of patients with autistic entercolitis driven by litigation once his paper was released. He even planned to develop a replacement vaccine for MMR. He put these plans into motion before the first child in his 12-child study had even been fully investigated: for Wakefield, a lot of money was riding on his study showing a link between MMR and autism.

Unfortunately, Wakefield’s fraudulent findings have produced an enduring conviction in many parents across the globe that vaccines cause autism. The sticky myth that vaccines cause autism is not supported by ANY scientific evidence, with more than 25 studies and trials refuting Wakefield’s fraudulent claim.

The man who popularized ‘spaced-out’ vaccination schedules: Dr. Bob Sears

The concept of a ‘flexible’ vaccination schedule was popularized by Dr. Robert Sears’ 2007 bestseller, “The Vaccine Book: Making the Right Decision for Your Child”. The book contains ‘Dr. Bob’s Alternative Vaccine Schedule’ and ‘Dr. Bob’s Selected Vaccine Schedule’, formulas he provides parents to space out or withhold vaccines, respectively.  Dr. Bob’s book has fueled a parental desire for physicians who are flexible regarding their child’s vaccination schedule: a study of first time expectant mothers showed that 75% of mothers wanted their children to receive all the vaccines recommended by the CDC, but most felt it was important that their pediatrician be flexible regarding the schedule. Dr. Bob claims that the CDC’s and American Academy of Pediatrics’ schedule has children receive too many vaccines at once, overwhelming their immune systems (there is no evidence for this claim). Part of what is so dangerous about Dr. Bob’s alternative schedule is that it seems to provide a middle ground for parents – not just accepting or rejecting all pediatric vaccinations, but allowing parents to make an ‘informed’ decision.

Dr. Bob’s Alternative Vaccine Schedule from http://www.immunizeforgood.com/fact-or-fiction/delayed-schedule

While claiming himself to be pro-vaccine and pro-parental choice, Dr. Bob has used his book and a recent podcast to sow doubt about vaccine safety and make money. In 2018, Dr. Bob was put on a 35-month probation by the Medical Board of California for writing baseless medical vaccine exemptions. He is also facing charges of gross negligence. Delaying/spacing out childhood vaccines has no scientific merit, and instead leaves children susceptible to more infectious pathogens for longer. Such delayed schedules also risk children falling further behind on their vaccinations due to the need for increased doctor’s visits.

Fake News is Becoming More Pervasive

Social media has contributed to the rapid spread of disinformation, with anti-vaccine conspiracies spreading like wildfire in Facebook groups, Youtube, and on Twitter. While Facebook has pledged to try to reduce the spread of such false information about COVID-19, much of the damage is already done. The movement is only growing: a survey has found that 150 of the largest anti-vaccine social media accounts have gained 8 million followers in the past year.  Fake news travels fast: a 2018 MIT study revealed that fake news travels faster – specifically 6 times faster – than real news on Twitter.

With the wide reach of misinformation about vaccines, perhaps the biggest challenge we face in controlling COVID-19 is controlling the spread of misinformation. We must remain vigilant about our consumption of health and science information and try to rebuild trust to beat this pandemic, together.

Here are some trusted, scientifically correct resources for information about the current COVID-19 vaccines:

Moderna:

Pfizer:

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