A coronavirus vaccine needs to secure mass take up to be truly effective – and there is the fly in the ointment

The pernicious falsehoods spread by ignorant anti-vaxxers have been well chronicled, but equally as damaging is a lack of trust in the governments that will have to oversee and coordinate a mass vaccination effort

James Moore
Monday 20 July 2020 12:34 BST
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A successful Covid-19 vaccine is today’s Holy Grail, a sacred cup that will restore life to what it was if everyone drinks from it. Well, that’s the theory anyway.

The mere hint that trials from this or that company are looking promising engenders hope, especially on the markets. It’s usually good for 100 points or more on top of a frothy FTSE 100.

Hate to rain on everyone’s parade, given what a huge shot in the arm (possibly literally) the emergence of a working one will be, but it just isn’t that simple.

To be truly effective, vaccines need to secure mass take up. None of them are 100 per cent effective, and even the best ones are made much less so in the absence of that.

There, right there, is the fly in the medicated ointment because securing mass take up looks like it might need some work.

A New York Times report chronicling widespread scepticism towards a potential coronavirus vaccine in the US was perhaps the most troubling thing I read over the weekend.

The most disturbing part was its finding otherwise rational people, those who’d had all their shots and thus wouldn’t appear to have much time for the doughnuts who make up the anti-vax “movement”, joining the ranks of the sceptics. The polls that have been done make for worrying reading.

The pernicious falsehoods spread by noisy and ignorant anti-vaxxers have, of course, been well chronicled. Social media has been a boon to them but let’s be honest here, the “mainstream” media has played its part, putting the pedlars of harmful myth up against public health experts and creating a false equivalence between them. Objective fact has too often been sacrificed

on the altar of spurious impartiality.

But equally as damaging may be a simple lack of trust in the governments that will have to oversee and coordinate a mass vaccination effort.

Governments being less than honest isn’t anything new, regardless of the party or parties with their hands on the levers of power. What’s different about the administrations currently in power in both the US, and in Britain, is the flagrancy with which they scatter falsehoods, which are then gleefully picked up and spread by their supporters.

It sometimes seems as if you’d get more sense out of a class full of five-year-olds than from one of prime minister Boris Johnson’s speeches. Ditto Donald Trump, for whom Johnson too often serves as a blustering mini me, whose pants seem permanently on fire.

There is a price to be paid for such casual mendacity, particularly when married to the public’s understandable (given past behaviour) scepticism towards big pharma. Drug companies are central to the international effort to find a workable vaccine.

That said, while we can spend all day analysing the causes of the problem, it’s far more important that we treat it.

It’s true that there are measures that can be taken to force an increase in the uptake of vaccinations. The most obvious is clearly no shot, no school, and maybe the introduction of vaccination certificates. The former may very well be necessary given the capacity that schools, even those which do their utmost to adhere to safety protocols, have when it comes to spreading the thing. Young children are always going to find social distancing a struggle.

But while such measures may be necessary, they carry the risk of a backlash, especially in the US, even with that country currently in the unhappy position of being one of the world’s coronavirus hot zones.

Better a volunteer than a conscript, so now would therefore be a good time to encourage them by addressing the troubling trends in public opinion with research and countermeasures, information films explaining how vaccinations work and why they can be trusted, featuring trusted voices (so not our lamentable politicians), for example.

These may be every bit as important as the efforts to find a vaccine in the first place.

The efforts to combat and control this vicious little ball of proteins and RNA have been positively Herculean. They must not be allowed to go to waste through everyday common or garden ignorance.

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