Canada, Columns

Rx for COVID-19 vaccine mistrust

Driving vaccine adoption in ethnic communities requires aggressive campaigning, of the knowledge kind

covid vaccine black communities haitians
Dr Ala Stanford and the Black Doctors Consortium gather at a Philadelphia Department of Health vaccine clinic to get the first wave of COVID-19 vaccinations. Such healthcare professionals are key to vaccine acceptance in black communities. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

By Ruolz Ariste, Ph.D., Columnist

Now more than ever, as governments around the globe roll out COVID-19 vaccines, public health authorities (PHA) should make it a point to understand why there is such intense opposition to COVID-19 vaccines among ethnic communities. It’s literally a matter of life and death.

Building understanding and driving widespread vaccine adoption is a long, winding journey. It entails having PHA work closely with ethnic community leaders and calls for the QAnon conspiracy terrorists to be designated as a public threat. 

However, driving that understanding must start somewhere. That’s why I have looked at the most common concerns and myths, and offer a prescription for vaccine acceptance among  resistant groups. 

Seven vaccine myths to know

Myth #1: The coronavirus is of human origin and is associated with 666, the mark of the beast. 

Conspiracy theorists claim that with a COVID vaccine, the intention is to insert a “microchip” into individuals to serve as the mark of the beast, the number 666 mentioned in Revelation 13:16-18 of the Bible. Fortunately, Christian scientists have debunked these viral conspiracies.

Reality Check: The technology is not a microchip, but more like an invisible tattoo. It has not yet been deployed, would not allow people to be tracked, and personal information would not be entered into a database, says a scientist involved in the study.

Myth #2: The Covid-19 vaccine will be deployed to reduce the black population.

This wacky thesis is rooted in a video clip that shows Melinda Gates, Bill Gates’s wife, saying black people and seniors should be vaccinated first. 

Reality Check: There is absolutely no conspiracy on this as it is known that blacks are generally hit harder by COVID-19 than the rest of the population, as are seniors. It is sensible for these two groups to have priority as part of an anti-Covid vaccination campaign. 

Seniors and healthcare professionals are prioritized as well. Does that mean that the Covid-19 vaccine will be deployed to reduce the number of health professionals too? Obviously no! Use your brain, dear friends! 

Myth #3: The Covid-19 vaccine is linked to 5G technology

5G causes electromagnetic disturbance that weakens the immune system and is responsible for the coronavirus. This false rumor has led to attacks in several countries. 

Reality Check: This is completely baseless and biologically impossible, according to scientists. The health risks of 5G T could be linked to very long time exposure to radiation and therefore cancer, but this is not yet proven. Yet, COVID-19 has nothing to do with cancer!

Myth #4: Covid-19 vaccines use innovative mRNA-based technology 

The conspiracy theory here is that mRNA-based technology used in the vaccine will change someone’s DNA. This first-time mechanism involves producing  infectious agents directly by the cells of the vaccinated individual. 

Reality Check: The mRNA vaccine will not be able to modify your genetic code in any way. Our genetic material is found in the nucleus of our cell. Therefore, mRNA cannot integrate our cell’s genetic material, which is our DNA. That is different from RNA.

Myth #5: Quick development of Covid-19 vaccines suspicious 

It can take 4 to 8 years to develop a vaccine, sometimes more. Some believe that developing the COVID-19 vaccine in one year makes it difficult to assess both its effectiveness and possible side effects in the medium and long term. 

Reality Check: While the four COVID-19 vaccines — Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson — are being developed in less than a year, the researchers did not cut corners in the research protocol. The reasons for the usual long time period are due to the great uncertainties of vaccine research, the time it takes to plan from one step to the next, to convince donors to fund this research at each of the four stages of the vaccine development process, and the time to find and convince participants in each of the stages — between 30,000 to 60,000 people in stage 3. 

With COVID, the stakes are so high that governments poured significant amounts of money into this research. The mRNA technology used had been studied for years before COVID-19. Researchers also  run the clinical trial process efficiently, with some time overlap between steps, instead of the usual time gap, which explains why these times have been reduced to their lowest level ever. 

The only shorter clinical time period is in phase 3, which usually lasts 6 months, but only took 3 months with COVID-19. This is possible because of the large trial — more than 44,000 participants in the case of Pfizer — and the assumption that side effects usually show up within 6 weeks in clinical trials. Still, all trial participants routinely continue to be monitored to assess long-term protection and safety, which is phase 4. In the case of Pfizer, it is an additional two years after their second dose. 

Myth #6: Questioning efficacy against mutated viruses

Coronaviruses undergo frequent mutations in their genetic code, given their ability to recombine with other viruses. The same thing happens with influenza viruses, another family of RNA viruses similar to coronaviruses. Because of this ability to mutate, the influenza vaccine must be reformulated annually. 

Reality Check: Will the COVID vaccine be effective against the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus if it is mutated? No one has the answer to this question yet. However, it is all about risk/benefit analysis and the benefits of the approved vaccines far outweigh the risks at the moment, making it clear that a vaccine is better than nothing.

Myth #7: Potential Mandatory Status

Conspiracy theorists suggest that some political leaders have already announced their intention to make the coronavirus vaccine mandatory, in the same way as wearing a seatbelt in a vehicle. However, the principle of will autonomy or choice prevails. It recognizes the right to accept or refuse therapies or medical procedures. However, by law, PHA can take different kinds of measures to preserve PH. 

Reality Check: It is normal that in the future some leaders may reserve the right not to admit to their territory people who have not been vaccinated. But, that doesn’t mean they require everyone to be vaccinated. 

Haitian doctor covid vaccine
Dr. Jonas Attilus taking a selfie before getting the first shot of the Pfizer-BioNTechPfizer vaccine on Dec. 24, 2020 . Photo credit: Jonas Attilus

The prescription  for vaccine adoption

The data is clear. More Black, Latinx and other people of color than whites believe that the risks of childhood immunization outweigh the benefits. A fall 2019 Pew Research survey found that 12% of adults in America do not believe the benefits of childhood measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccines outweigh the risks.  This figure was 26% for Blacks, more than double, and 22% for Hispanics — compared to only 8% for all white Americans.

In the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, about 36% of white evangelists and black Protestants believe COVID-19 was made in a lab, intentionally or accidentally. Only 29% of all American adults surveyed agreed. All this, despite credible medical organizations debunking anti-COVID vaccine beliefs and numerous studies showing the many benefits and minimal adverse impact of vaccination.

Groups, like the QAnon in the United States, which believe an elite is responsible for the coronavirus should rightly be identified as threats to public health. 

To combat such misinformation, the Public Health Agency (PHA) of Canada must conduct through an aggressive knowledge transfer campaign in ethnic groups. PHA would benefit enormously from working closely with ethnic community leaders, entities like BioLogos or other credible Christian scientists, even cell phone companies to dispel these myths around the COVID-19 vaccines.  

For example, short PH rubrics or columns can be held during church worship, and mobile phone companies can send 5G text messages or short videos to their subscribers. 

Ethnic working groups could be established in these communities in order to educate this population in their mother tongue and increase their confidence in science and PHA. 

Thus, the latter could succeed in thwarting the anti-vaccine controversy and securing 70 to 80 percent adoption, which is necessary for a successful and effective vaccination campaign when it is the turn of the general population to take the vaccine. 

After these massive knowledge transfer campaigns, people from any background who refuse the COVID-19 vaccine without valid medical reason should not be given priority to access ICU beds, ventilators or other emergency services, if they become ill. Everything else being equal, it would be a fair decision to rank these people at the bottom of the priority list, having chosen to listen to conspiracy theorists, and not to PHA and experts.  

Ruolz Ariste

Ruolz Ariste

Ruolz Ariste, Ph.D., is an adjunct professor at Université Laval in Québec, affiliated with the Department of Operations and Decision Systems. Ariste writes opinion pieces about matters of interest to the Haitian community in Canada and the U.S. He is based in the Ottawa area.
Ruolz Ariste
Jan. 20, 2021

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