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Viral TikToks offer firsthand accounts of vaccine trials, debunk misinformation

"People are genuinely having real conversations, and people are asking questions, and I think that’s kind of magic," Kate Bredbenner said.
Image; Hand holding syringe in TikTok colors.
Paper Boat Creative / Getty Images; NBC News

Ashley Locke, 29, got her first injection this month as part of the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine trial.

Since she started the trial Nov. 16 in Nashville, Tennessee, millions of people have watched as she documented her experience on TikTok.

"I've seen people post TikToks about different journeys they're having, like weight-loss journeys or moving to a new school and things like that, so I was, like, this vaccine trial is an interesting thing. I'll post about that," Locke said. "Maybe some people will find that interesting."

The post has amassed about 2.7 million views, and she has been inundated with questions and comments about the vaccine trial.

An emerging group of TikTokers have gone viral for sharing information about the Covid-19 vaccines. Hashtags about the vaccine have millions of views as young people seek information about the trials in a format they can understand. Several other TikTok users have posted videos of themselves participating in trials, and at least one video, in which a doctor weighs the differences among some of the vaccine trials, has received more than a million views.

One hashtag, #CovidVaccine, has more than 36 million views.

Covid-19 vaccines are nearing approval and distribution. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said Tuesday that a vaccine could receive emergency authorization from the Food and Drug Administration as soon as Dec. 10. Distribution could begin soon after, Azar said.

The viral TikToks not only are feeding young people's hunger for information about the vaccines; they are also having real-world influence — from users who say the videos have persuaded them to get vaccinated once the injections are approved to young people who say they influenced them to sign up for vaccine trials, according to those making the videos.

The TikTokers who have posted about trials are also putting their videos out to fight misinformation about the vaccines and Covid-19.

Recent viral videos spreading misinformation, like one falsely claiming that vaccines are how the government microchips Americans, have been widely mocked by young people who, in some cases, have debunked the unproven claims with facts that appear to have come from some of the informative videos.

And although they say they sometimes get anti-vaccine activists in their comment sections, those making the videos said the comments have been overwhelmingly positive, with many young people asking how the vaccines might work.

That's been the case for Kate Bredbenner, 29, a doctor of biomedical sciences with a focus on biophysics, who posted a TikTok on Nov. 11 explaining in simple terms how the Covid-19 vaccine that Pfizer is developing works. (Bredbenner said her explanation also applies to the Moderna vaccine, which was announced as being effective just days after she posted her video.)

Within days, the video had amassed several million views. As of Wednesday, it had reached 3.2 million views.

"I posted it and it got a decent amount of popularity right away, and I was, like, 'Whoa, that's really intense.' … I have no idea what happened in the algorithm, but, like, five days after I posted it I started getting a ton of notifications," Bredbenner said.

Bredbenner said that just by virtue of her being a woman on the internet, she had anticipated that her video might get some weird or nasty comments. But she said the comment section is almost exclusively filled by curious users asking her how the vaccine might affect them.

"It makes me feel so good. People are genuinely having real conversations, and people are asking questions, and I think that's kind of magic," Bredbenner said.

Locke's video has been inundated with questions to the point that she has made several more to give her viewers more information. She said that she also checks out a profile before she responds to a question and that she has been pleasantly surprised to learn that many of those who are curious about the vaccine appear to be of high school age.

She has also come up with a game plan to respond to the questions she's not qualified to answer.

"I talked to the communications director [of Clinical Research Associates]. Next time I go in, I'm going to be able to ask some of the questions I'm not able to answer. I'm going to be able to ask my doctors and hopefully have them on my videos to be a little more informative and answer some more of those scientific things that I don't know, but still in a clear way that's easy for our audiences," Locke said.

Locke and Bredbenner said they've gotten a few "anti-vaxxer" comments on their videos, but both said other people will often reply armed with facts to debunk misinformation.

"It's very interesting to see people having conversations around that," Bredbenner said. "I have gotten some comments on the video that are like 'I was really confused about this before and unsure, but this made me feel a lot more confident in how it works.'"

Locke and Bredbenner said that not only are the videos informing people but that they also appear to have some real-world influence.

TikTok users have told Bredbenner that although they were initially skeptical, they plan to get the Covid-19 vaccine once it is available after having watched her videos. Locke said several new trial participants have signed up with Clinical Research Associates after having seen her TikTok.

Locke said she hopes that just by sharing her experience, she'll alleviate any fears or doubts her viewers might have.

"There have been a lot of comments with people like: 'Oh, I don't know, girl. I'm going to check back in a couple months and see how you're feeling then,' and I hope they do check in and they do see that everything is fine and totally normal," Locke said. "I do think it will be helpful to those people on the fence and maybe for some younger people on TikTok who haven't fully developed their beliefs one way or another."