The presence of a vaccine to protect against COVID-19 could make daily life closer to the pre-pandemic normal than it is for most Americans right now. But the obstacles of getting Americans to accept COVID-19 vaccinations may be even greater than those in getting one developed in record time to fight this novel, contagious and deadly virus.
For one, Americans' distrust in scientific experts and institutions was percolating long before COVID-19 was a global issue — and the strong anti-vaccine movement is one of the starkest symptoms of that growing distrust. The refusal to take vaccines had already been spreading across the country over the past decade; that movement has not missed its moment during the pandemic. Wild, unfounded allegations that the pandemic was in fact a “plandemic” were spearheaded by an organized group of anti-vaxxers online, determined to sow misinformation about the novel coronavirus.
Meanwhile, skepticism and political division plagued the country’s initial response to the pandemic; those same issues, plus uncertainty about how successful a vaccine may actually be, promises to be an uphill battle in vaccinating against COVID-19.
There are some signs that a COVID-19 vaccine is already politicized and partisanship significantly colors people's trustin any vaccine: Fifty-two percent of Democrats would be very interested in getting a COVID-19 vaccine approved by the FDA, while only 38 percent of Republicans and 28 percent of independents hold that same level of interest.
That same survey found that 1 in 5 Republicans and the same percentage of independents are not at all interested in receiving any vaccine.
Distrust outside of the confines of partisan politics among anti-vaxxers core demographic — mothers — is borne out in data as well. Gender brings out stark differences among parents in their enthusiasm for a COVID-19 vaccine. Half of fathers would be very interested in getting an FDA-approved COVID-19 vaccine. Only a third of mothers with children under 17 feel the same way.
Either poses potential problems for the efficacy of any potential vaccine’s roll-out because, ultimately, how many people get vaccinated could be a crucial step in ending social distancing. New studies show that herd immunity is a function of the efficacy of a vaccine and how many people take it are intertwined; if a vaccine is less effective, then more people need to take it in order to contain the virus. Many experts, including Dr. Fauci, believe the research community will likely end up developing a vaccine with lower efficacy levels due to the nature of the coronavirus.
Beyond that, preventative strategies — mask wearing, contact tracing and vaccines — rely on the trust between officials and the public. But Americans' response to the pandemic is clearly being stymied by their lack of faith in the information they get from public officials.
For instance, a recent Axios-Ipsos poll shows that only 11 percent of Democrats believe the information they get from the administration is accurate, while 63 percent of Republicans have a "great deal" or a "fair" amount of trust in information they receive from the White House.
Scientific institutions are also subject to large gaps in trust from the American public: Forty-four percent of Democrats trust the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention "a great deal" to provide them with accurate information, while only 17 percent of Republicans feel the same way.
The World Health Organization — a body that the president threatened to terminate the United States' relationship with in May — sees similar trust gaps between Democrats and Republicans.
The president, of course, is a powerful political communicator to his base, but he is a divisive figure outside of that core group of supporters, which poses a unique problem for rallying the country around singular action.
For instance, Republican mask wearing trailed the rate of mask use among Democrats for the better part of the spring , as the issue became subsumed in the culture war. Mask use only began increasing among Republicans once the president wore a mask in public.
A partisan repeat of this same pattern for a vaccine could put the country further behind in its quest to get COVID-19 under control.
Finally, it is clear that who develops and champions a vaccine could be just as important as the science behind it in convincing people to inoculate themselves.
Currently, over 30 vaccines are in human trials. Russian President Vladimir Putin has already claimed vaccine victory with one he's calling Sputnik-V — a Cold War nod to the former Soviet Union’s success with satellites that supercharged the space race. The U.S. has, in the meantime, signed a $1.5 billion deal for a vaccine with Moderna, a U.S. health care company.
Who is ultimately able to produce an effective vaccine at scale and distribute it to wide swaths of the public — and how that gets read into America’s culture wars — will be a major driver in how the public chooses to trust a vaccine.
All to say, there is no silver bullet for solving a pandemic, even when a vaccine is developed.
But as we wait, half of Americans now already know someone who tested positive for COVID-19, and 1 in every 4 COVID-19 patients around the world today is American. Our skepticism of science has already proven dangerous once; we have perhaps yet to see how dangerous it will truly end up being.