Vaccine misinformation travels many times faster than Covid – and it will continue to cost lives

It is not enough to deliver access to these extraordinary scientific solutions; we need confidence in them, too

Nadhim Zahawi@nadhimzahawi
Tuesday 01 June 2021 14:49
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Today's daily politics briefing

Vaccine hesitancy is infectious; it spreads like a virus, rapidly and invisibly. It can transform realities by being passed on from household to household and community to community, hindering our recovery from Covid-19.

We are witnessing growing evidence that, where available, Covid-19 vaccines are breaking the hold the virus has over our lives. Global equitable access to coronavirus vaccines is key to eliminating the threat of the virus – that’s why the UK is one of the largest country donors to the Covax Advance Market Commitment, helping to make vaccinations available to all.

But for communities to emerge en masse into a post-pandemic world, we need these efforts to go a step further: it is not enough to deliver access to these extraordinary scientific solutions; we need confidence in them, too.

This urgent need for action is why the UK government, as holder of the G7 presidency, has announced plans to convene a Global Vaccine Confidence Summit on Wednesday 2 June. This summit is the first of its kind and provides a unique opportunity for leading democracies, together with public and private sector partners, to set ambitious goals that will help ensure trust in vaccines remains high.

With lockdowns leading to anxiety and isolation for many, this is an important opportunity for the world’s governments to come together to build vaccine confidence on a global scale.

The UK is one of a number of countries that is well placed to support this new global drive with insight and sharing of best practice. In working first-hand with faith and community leaders, I have seen for myself how important it is to listen to people’s concerns while ensuring they’re given the facts on how they can benefit from a vaccine.

Data from Public Health England’s real-world study shows that the vaccines are already having a significant impact in the UK, reducing hospitalisations and deaths, saving more than 10,000 lives in England by the end of March.

I know that access to factual and timely information is also a concern of my peers among G7 governments and countries around the world who are working to allay fear and build trust. If we don’t focus our efforts on getting the facts to people at this critical time, we run the risk that misinformation, in its many forms, will take hold.

The phrase “a lie can travel around the world before the truth has got its boots on” predates the dawn of our social media age by at least 135 years. In our interconnected world, misinformation unfortunately now travels many times faster than the virus, with no respect for borders.

Factual inaccuracies, scepticism, lies and full-blown conspiracy theories all undermine the trust necessary to step up and take the jab. A recent study by Professor Heidi Larson and colleagues from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine showed that acceptance rates of the Covid-19 vaccine dropped by 6 percentage points among people who viewed misinformation about the vaccine online.

In the UK, we have already learned some valuable lessons about combatting these combined threats. Our ability to enable a smooth roll-out of the vaccine helped build confidence in the system in the early days of it being available, and this was supported by the provision of simple, fact-based vaccine information to the public.

We follow the guidance of our medicines’ regulator, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, and the scientific advisors to government. We have acted rapidly when guidance changed, while putting the most trusted voices – clinicians, vaccine experts and recognisable frontline health workers such as GPs and nurses, and community and faith groups – at the heart of our communications.

Embracing a people-friendly approach has also been vital, from 91-year-old Margaret Keenan, the first person in the world to receive the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine outside a clinical trial, to engaging personalities such as Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Lenny Henry, along with the tens of thousands who have been happy to share their support on social media.

However, we don’t take it for granted that what works in the UK will work in other countries, with vaccine confidence often driven by complex cultural, social and political factors that we need to do much more to understand.

What we do know is we’re facing a once-in-a-generation challenge to encourage the global uptake of vaccines – an injection of confidence that will also support the global recovery.

In bringing together the world’s most influential thought leaders, the summit tomorrow will galvanise action around the common goal of ensuring trust in vaccines and ending the pandemic.

Putting vaccine confidence on the global agenda means taking a critical step towards securing our collective future.

Nadhim Zahawi is the Conservative MP for Stratford on Avon and minister for Covid-19 vaccine deployment

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