By Alexis Palmer-Fluevog

Despite the tremendous gains that the scientific community has made during this pandemic, there is still a major battle to fight: the battle against disinformation. In a recent opinion piece in Nature, Dr. Peter Hotez highlights the threat that anti-vaccine misinformation poses while urging policymakers to take action.

 

Main conclusions:

  • The United Nations (UN) and global governing bodies to take direct and targeted approaches to dismantling anti-vaccine groups.
  • Efforts to halt disinformation must expand outside of public health realms and into cyber security, law enforcement, public education, and international relations to be effective.

 

Prior to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, the World Health Organization had recognized the threat of vaccine hesitancy to global health security. The resurgence of measles in 2019 was a reminder that without widespread and sustained vaccine coverage, viruses cannot be eradicated. In this article, Dr. Hotez shows how disinformation and targeted attacks on scientists are undermining progress in the fight against COVID-19.

As Dr. Hotez explains the anti-vaccine movement has become increasingly sophisticated. With the development of social media platforms, anti-vaccine campaigns have an opportunity to spread disinformation even further. These campaigns are increasingly well-coordinated and streamlined, proving to be more influential as they gain a wider audience.

The author highlights how anti-vaccine activists have used the uncertain and anxiety-ridden times to their advantage: they have exploited individuals’ reasonable questions and concerns to promoted conspiracy theories, exaggerate fears, and undermine scientific leaders. The rapidly spreading misinformation regarding the COVID-19 adenovirus vaccines is an example of how extremely dangerous the messaging can be. The author illustrates how disinformation has led to low vaccine confidence in some low-income countries, such as in Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where governments have had to turn away the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines due to vaccine hesitancy. The African Union has altogether halted further procurement. Gaps in vaccine coverage will leave COVID-19 to spread unchecked as vaccines languish in storage.

Dr. Hotez argues that purveyors of misinformation must be confronted directly with a multi-systems approach. He argues that the way in which public health agencies have been addressing anti-vaccine sentiment is insufficient and dangerous. Dr. Hotez challenges the United Nations (UN) and global governing bodies to take direct and targeted approaches to dismantling anti-vaccine groups. He argues that efforts to halt disinformation must expand outside of public health realms and into cyber security, law enforcement, public education, and international relations to be effective. He concludes with a recommendation for the development of an inter-agency task force reporting to the UN Secretary-General that could “assess the full impact of anti-vaccine aggression, and propose tough, balanced measures.”

 

Hotez P. COVID vaccines: time to confront anti-vax aggression. Nature 592(661). 2021 Apr 27. doi: 10.1038/d41586-021-01084-x.