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How Vaccine Skepticism May Affect Efforts To Combat The Coronavirus Pandemic

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Let's say it's 2021. Scientists have already developed and marketed a vaccine for COVID-19. Now they face a new problem - convincing people to actually get vaccinated with it. A Gallup Poll last month found that more than 1 in 3 Americans would not get an FDA-approved coronavirus vaccine, even for free. Psychology professor Dolores Albarracin studies behavior and medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She spoke with our co-host Audie Cornish earlier today about why some people are skeptical of vaccines.

AUDIE CORNISH, BYLINE: We know that it can take years to develop and distribute a safe vaccine to everyone. And then, of course, just this week, the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca announced that it was hitting pause on its trial to investigate an unexplained illness in one of its participants. So there are people who are concerned about potential long-term side effects, who are worried about this process being rushed. Does that boost people's doubts? And is that wrong?

DOLORES ALBARRACIN: Well, I think it's completely normal. And we should all be looking at side effects for any pharmaceutical product that we consume, right? So among those who hesitate, 60% fear side effects; 37% are not afraid, but they just don't think it will work. And then you have 20% who are the staunch opposers - so the anti-vax group, and that's a small group.

So for the folks who are fearing side effects, I think news like the one you're referring to are going to be extremely influential. And they connect with some pretty strong and persuasive narratives about Big Pharma. And we have data, even my own data with colleagues at the University Pennsylvania, showing that exposure to social media earlier on actually predicts vaccination intentions in the domain of flu later on. So there's pretty good data that those groups are not trivial.

CORNISH: Wait. So help me understand this. Essentially, if someone sees anti-vaccination social media posts, that can actually influence their own decision about whether or not to accept a vaccine?

ALBARRACIN: Yes, it's similar to that. So we surveyed 3,000 participants over one year following the flu season - 12 months. So what we observe is what is going on on Twitter, what misinformation about vaccines is being distributed and where. So when you look at that, and then you look at - whoever lives in a county that has that kind of Big Pharma conspiracy misinformation circulating on Twitter are less likely to get the flu shot a few months later, except that they are not affected if they have discussions in real life. So if they can discuss this information with friends, family, their physicians, then they are less persuaded by the misinformation. But otherwise, the misinformation they encounter regionally affects them.

CORNISH: What does all this mean for the public information campaign? How should authorities, public health officials, go about trying to convince people to embrace a vaccine, should one come along?

ALBARRACIN: So the strategy, in my view, should be to communicate a norm clearly. So you need to tell people that everybody wants it. We all like it. We must have it - so something quite different from what we saw with wearing masks, where there was a lot more hesitation in the messaging - right? - and contradictions over months. So clear norm.

You also need to be, of course, correcting for misinformation, systematically, every day, through health education in schools and work - everywhere. We've seen an explosion of misinformation in what the WHO has referred to as an infodemic (ph). And if we don't eradicate it, it will make it very difficult to end the COVID-19 pandemic.

CORNISH: That was Dolores Albarracin. She's a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Thank you for speaking with us.

ALBARRACIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.