As the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) threatens the globe infecting over 43.8 million people, the development of a vaccine against the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) is of paramount importance.
Apart from the dissemination of the vaccine, its acceptance among the public is also crucial. Obtaining a high uptake of the vaccine will be a challenging task due to the growing online misinformation.
A new study by researchers at the Imperial College London and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine aimed to determine how online misinformation impacts COVID-19 vaccine uptake intent. Further, the team wanted to identify socioeconomic groups at a higher risk of not getting vaccinated and those who are most susceptible to online misinformation.
Study: Measuring the Impact of Exposure to COVID-19 Vaccine Misinformation on Vaccine Intent in the UK and US. Image Credit: Lightspring / Shutterstock
The internet and social media platforms are significant sources of information amid the coronavirus pandemic since most people were confined in their homes during the lockdown. Though health agencies and experts exerted effort to provide as much information about the illness as possible, many people were exposed to online misinformation.
Vaccination is seen as an essential weapon against the virus. Currently, over 200 candidate vaccines are in development. Once a vaccine is available, it is estimated that it will need to be administered to at least 55 percent of the population to provide herd immunity.
To reach these levels is essential, but many regions worldwide experience vaccine hesitancy, often fueled by online and offline misinformation surrounding the vaccines’ safety, importance, or effectiveness.
At the moment, 44 vaccines are in the clinical evaluation stage. Of these, ten are in the last phase of clinical trials. While many vaccines are nearing completion in clinical trials, there have been widely circulating false stories about the pandemic. With vaccine misinformation, it may be hard to convince people worldwide to get the vaccine when one becomes available to the general public.
Widely circulating misinformation on social media surrounding a COVID-19 vaccine between June and August 2020. For each of the UK and US, five images were selected (see Methods) to expose to respondents. These “treatment” image sets were shown to 3,000 respondents in the UK (A) and the US (B).
In the study, which appeared on the preprint server medRxiv*, the researchers developed a COVID-19 survey form to measure vaccine intent pre- and post-exposure to online sources of recent misinformation associated with COVID-19 and vaccines.
Overall, the team surveyed more than 8,000 in the United Kingdom and the United States. Of these, the team exposed 3,000 respondents in each country to misinformation, while the remaining 1,000 in each country were shown data about a COVID-19 vaccine that provided factual information.
Widely circulating factual information on social media surrounding a COVID-19 vaccine between June and August 2020. The same five images were selected (see Methods) for exposure to respondents in the UK and US. These “control” image sets were shown to 1,000 respondents in the UK and the US.
The researchers also considered important data such as age, gender, employment type, highest education level, ethnicity, income level, and religious affiliation. They also included the sources of trust for information about COVID-19, social media usage, political belief, and reasons for being unsure about being vaccinated against COVID-19.
Further, they computed for the determinants of COVID-19 vaccine intent both before and after exposure of information about the vaccine. This way, they can determine which groups are already less likely to get the vaccine and those vulnerable to COVID-19 vaccine misinformation.
What the study found
The team has found that recent misinformation about COVID-19 vaccination lowers people’s intent to get the shot even if they would otherwise vaccinate by as much as 6.4 percent in the U.K. and 2.4 percent in the U.S.
Further, the team revealed larger declines in the intent to vaccinate to protect others. In terms of sociodemographic profile, older people in the U.S. are more susceptible to misinformation around vaccines. Non-whites and those in low-income groups are more likely to reject a COVID-19 vaccine. Interestingly, the team also found that people with the highest educational attainment below postgraduate degrees are at a heightened risk of rejecting a COVID-19 vaccine.
In both countries, individuals with the highest educational attainment below postgraduate degrees, low-income groups, and non-whites are more likely to reject a COVID-19 vaccine.
In a nutshell, the team concluded that scientific-sounding misinformation tied to COVID-19 and vaccines lowers people’s intent to get vaccinated.
“These findings reveal how recent COVID-19 misinformation can impact vaccination rates and suggest pathways to robust messaging campaigns,” the researchers concluded.
The study findings shed light on the importance of understanding the importance of public health communication strategies in relaying factual information about the pandemic and the benefits of getting vaccinated. Being informed accurately can help reduce the rejection of vaccination, not only for COVID-19 but also for other infectious diseases.
medRxiv publishes preliminary scientific reports that are not peer-reviewed and, therefore, should not be regarded as conclusive, guide clinical practice/health-related behavior, or treated as established information.