When news leaked this month that AstraZeneca was halting its coronavirus vaccine trial, the company explained that it was “a routine action.” The goal, to determine whether one participant’s illness was linked to the vaccine, was heralded by scientists as exactly how trials are supposed to work: putting safety first.
But Children’s Health Defense, a group that has peddled misinformation and conspiracy theories about vaccines for years, reacted with alarm. It quickly posted about the news on its website and social media accounts, and its founder, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., declared without basis that pharmaceutical companies “have always been able to dismiss these sort of tragic outcomes as sad ‘coincidence.’”
“Vaccines are not accustomed to this level of scrutiny,” the organization tweeted.
The stakes for this vaccine could not be higher: In order to stop the spread of a virus that has killed more than 200,000 Americans, people will need to take it, and the more people the better. But as President Donald Trump and his close associates openly push for a vaccine to be ready by the election, Americans are increasingly worried. Concerns that politics is being prioritized over science are now becoming mainstream, emboldening fringe groups that have long spread conspiracy theories about the dangers of vaccines.
“All of this stuff is just a gift to the anti-vaccine movement,” Peter Hotez, a virologist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, told BuzzFeed News.
As November draws closer, Trump has ramped up promises of a speedy vaccine. He has repeatedly said that a shot could be ready as soon as October, calling the longer timeline given by his CDC director a “mistake.” And the FDA’s reported plan to toughen its requirements for candidate vaccines, which would entail collecting additional safety data, was undermined by Trump’s remark last week that he “may or may not approve it.”
Still, practically speaking, there is almost no chance that a vaccine would be available before the election. Hotez said he believes that Operation Warp Speed, which is channeling $10 billion in taxpayer funds to fast-track six vaccine candidates, is being conducted rigorously. But he complained that there hasn’t been enough of an emphasis on transparency: “The communications around it has been a nightmare.”
“The world is littered with good vaccines that don’t get used because of public misperception,” he said. “There’s real danger here that that could happen.”
Many health experts, politicians, and scientists have found themselves in the uncomfortable position of trying to assure the public that a resulting vaccine will be safe, while also calling out moves by the Trump administration that could threaten safety.
On the campaign trail, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are toeing the line by saying they trust vaccines but not Trump. Harris has said that the president’s word alone on any potential vaccine would not be enough for her. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced last week that his state would conduct its own review of any federally approved vaccines. “Frankly, I’m not going to trust the federal government’s opinion,” he told reporters.
The FDA’s earlier actions have given them and others reason to be nervous. The agency authorized hydroxychloroquine and convalescent plasma, two experimental coronavirus treatments championed by Trump, over the vocal protests of scientists who said there was insufficient evidence that they work.
Social media has long been a breeding ground for vaccine misinformation. Both online and offline, anti-vaccine groups have pushed falsehoods, such as that vaccines cause autism and that the government and pharmaceutical companies are in a conspiracy to cover it up. In recent years, anti-vaccine activists were dealt setbacks by states that tightened their immunization requirements, eliminating so-called personal belief exemptions from rules requiring kids to be vaccinated before attending school. When such legislation came up in California in 2019, activists staged protests that at some points turned violent.
Then came the coronavirus.
In the absence of clear, consistent, and trustworthy messaging on COVID-19, misinformation is thriving. In the first few months of 2020, researchers found more than 2,300 reports across 87 countries of rumors and conspiracy theories about the coronavirus.
It has become such a big problem that the World Health Organization and the United Nations are urging countries to combat it. “False information is hindering the response to the pandemic so we must join forces to fight it and to promote science-based public health advice,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director-general, said in a statement last week.
While some prominent sources of misinformation have been kicked off social media platforms, “these ideas mostly circulate among ordinary people,” Daniel Allington, a computational social scientist at King’s College London who has studied COVID-19 misinformation, said by email. “I have Facebook friends who share this stuff. It saddens me to see how easily some people slip down that rabbit hole.”
Vaccine critics have demonstrated against lockdowns and shunned masks and contact tracing. Now, as at least 10 vaccines are making their way through late-stage trials, and with Trump pressing for a vaccine "within a matter of weeks," activists are invoking language about “medical freedom” and “bodily autonomy” to cast doubt on the vetting process.
“Want to be forced to take an improperly tested, hastily approved C0V1D vaccine? Neither do we,” one group, Texans for Vaccine Choice, declared in a recent Facebook post.
In a text message, Jackie Schlegel, the group’s executive director, said that their mission is to “protect and advance informed consent, medical privacy, and vaccine choice.” “We are excited about the massive influx of Americans on both sides of the aisle who are waking up to these core principals, and realizing the choice of what we put into our bodies is vital to freedom and bodily autonomy,” she wrote.
Another group, the Freedom Angels Foundation, wrote on Instagram: “As if va$$ines didn’t already cause enough injury & death....now C19 is taking it whole other level.” Asked for comment, a representative said by email: “The Covid issue has inherently brought our issues to the forefront through no machination on our part.”
Groups like these, which have opposed strengthened vaccine requirements in Texas and California, make up a minority of Americans. Pre-pandemic polls indicate that the vast majority of the public believes in the benefits of vaccination. But a growing number of people are now questioning whether the coronavirus vaccine trials will be thorough and based on science, not politics.
Public willingness to take a COVID-19 vaccine dropped from 72% in May to 51% in September, according to polls by the Pew Research Center. Just 9% of Americans polled by Axios–Ipsos said this month that they’re “very likely” to take the first-generation vaccine, down from 17% in August.
Their confusion is understandable, experts say. “The minority that are deeply entrenched and believe in the conspiracy theories — they’re dug in. You’re not going to extricate those,” Hotez said. But the noise is drawing in “people who are not even necessarily anti-vaccine.”
Some vaccine makers have also not done themselves any favors, critics say.
Executives at Moderna, a biotech firm, have made millions selling stocks while its vaccine is still in trials, drawing scrutiny from both pharmaceutical watchdogs and anti-vaxxers. “Some seriously dirty [money bag emojis] here,” Sherri Tenpenny, an osteopathic physician and anti-vaccine activist, recently tweeted. The firm, which did not respond to a request for comment, has never brought a vaccine to market before. (Tenpenny also did not respond to a request for comment.)
A trial for another frontrunner vaccine, developed by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford, was halted this month due to a participant reportedly developing neurological symptoms consistent with transverse myelitis, a spinal inflammatory disorder. After health authorities determined the illness was not linked to the vaccine, AstraZeneca then restarted the trials in the UK, South Africa, and Brazil. But no further information was released, and the vaccine’s US trials remain on hold pending a safety review by the FDA.
In a clinical trial with tens of thousands of people, it’s statistically expected that some of them will develop symptoms that may or may not have anything to do with the vaccine. It is not unusual for a study to pause out of an abundance of caution.
But some scientists criticized AstraZeneca for not being more transparent about those details, given the unprecedented interest in the vaccine trials. The news only became public in the science publication Stat, which cited anonymous sources and private conversations between the CEO and investors. And it was only then that the company disclosed that the trial had paused once before, in July, when a participant developed multiple sclerosis. That illness was also determined to be unrelated to the vaccine.
“It’s all rumor. It’s all whispering down the lane,” said Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and a member of the FDA’s vaccine advisory committee, shortly after the suspected safety incidents came to light and the overseas trials were restarted. “You’d like to know the details of just what it was and the details of why regulators were comfortable that wasn’t a problem. We don’t know any of those details.”
Misinformation could especially damage the willingness of people in racial and ethnic minority groups to take a vaccine or help with research. Black and Latino people, who have historically been subjected to biased medical care and unethical experimentation, are already underrepresented in clinical trials. Experts worry that not enough of them are enrolling in studies to test whether these vaccines will work for everyone, and US polls indicate that, out of all ethnic groups, Black Americans are the least enthusiastic about getting the vaccine.
Some anti-vaccine groups have sought to capitalize on these fears. “The NIH is encouraging minorities to participate in COVID-19 vaccine clinical trials,” Children’s Health Defense recently tweeted, adding, “African Americans are especially susceptible to vaccine injury.” It linked to a PDF that mixed debunked claims — such as that the CDC purportedly covered up evidence that vaccinated Black baby boys are more likely to develop autism — with true statements, including that the Tuskegee study deliberately withheld treatment from Black syphilis patients, a major ethical violation.
The group did not return a request for comment.
The National Medical Association, which represents Black doctors, is forming a task force to independently review coronavirus vaccine data and issue recommendations to their patients.
“If there’s a reason to not recommend a COVID-19 vaccine, we want that reason to be based on facts and data, not somebody’s dreamed-up conspiracy or some type of misinformation campaign,” said Leon McDougle, the group’s president and a family physician.
In an effort to restore public trust, top health officials and pharmaceutical executives are now stating their commitment to safety in unusually explicit terms.
The CEOs of nine COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers signed a pledge this month to make “the safety and well-being of vaccinated individuals the top priority.” Following calls for greater transparency after the AstraZeneca trial paused, that company and three other Operation Warp Speed frontrunners released their ordinarily confidential clinical trial plans. And before Congress last week, top US infectious disease scientist Anthony Fauci and the directors of the CDC and the FDA assured the public that the vaccines will be vetted without political interference and that they would get the shots themselves.
Asked how it was combating misinformation, a Department of Health and Human Services spokesperson said the administration is planning a public information campaign that will “focus on vaccine safety, efficacy and hesitancy.” They said the program, which has been “weeks” in the making, involved “dozens of NGO, industry and community leaders.” (The FDA did not respond to a request for comment.)
But Hotez and other government officials think they should go much further. He’d like to see trusted vaccine researchers communicating with the public and perhaps going on TV as often as every week to explain the science and answer questions from reporters.
That’s needed because the country has never been on track to produce vaccines in such a short time frame before, and it can’t afford to lose Americans’ confidence before they're even ready. “There’s no road map here,” he said.