Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania conducted a study during a measles outbreak last year and concluded that “a relatively high number of individuals are at least somewhat misinformed about vaccines,” often expressing mistaken beliefs about the treatments’ association with autism and toxins. The researchers also found a correlation between belief in vaccine misinformation and low trust in medical authorities, as well as exposure to material about vaccines on social media.
Steve Danehy, a Pfizer spokesman, said in an email that “public education around the need for vaccination, as well as the rigorous process by which the vaccines have been developed, is critical.”
Public messaging campaigns can be instrumental in persuading people to act in a health crisis. Travel advisories kept many pregnant tourists and business travelers away from areas struggling to contain the Zika epidemic in 2016, for instance.
The marketing plan for a coronavirus vaccine must persuade people that the treatment is safe and effective, while also providing practical instructions on where people can get vaccinated and how they can schedule appointments, said Dolores Albarracin, a psychology, business and medicine professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
The Road to a Coronavirus Vaccine
Words to Know About Vaccines
Confused by the all technical terms used to describe how vaccines work and are investigated? Let us help:
- Adverse event: A health problem that crops up in volunteers in a clinical trial of a vaccine or a drug. An adverse event isn’t always caused by the treatment tested in the trial.
- Antibody: A protein produced by the immune system that can attach to a pathogen such as the coronavirus and stop it from infecting cells.
- Approval, licensure and emergency use authorization: Drugs, vaccines and medical devices cannot be sold in the United States without gaining approval from the Food and Drug Administration, also known as licensure. After a company submits the results of clinical trials to the F.D.A. for consideration, the agency decides whether the product is safe and effective, a process that generally takes many months. If the country is facing an emergency — like a pandemic — a company may apply instead for an emergency use authorization, which can be granted considerably faster.
- Background rate: How often a health problem, known as an adverse event, arises in the general population. To determine if a vaccine or a drug is safe, researchers compare the rate of adverse events in a trial to the background rate.
- Efficacy: A measurement of how effective a treatment was in a clinical trial. To test a coronavirus vaccine, for instance, researchers compare how many people in the vaccinated and placebo groups get Covid-19. The real-world effectiveness of a vaccine may turn out to be different from its efficacy in a trial.
- Phase 1, 2, and 3 trials: Clinical trials typically take place in three stages. Phase 1 trials usually involve a few dozen people and are designed to observe whether a vaccine or drug is safe. Phase 2 trials, involving hundreds of people, allow researchers to try out different doses and gather more measurements about the vaccine’s effects on the immune system. Phase 3 trials, involving thousands or tens of thousands of volunteers, determine the safety and efficacy of the vaccine or drug by waiting to see how many people are protected from the disease it’s designed to fight.
- Placebo: A substance that has no therapeutic effect, often used in a clinical trial. To see if a vaccine can prevent Covid-19, for example, researchers may inject the vaccine into half of their volunteers, while the other half get a placebo of salt water. They can then compare how many people in each group get infected.
- Post-market surveillance: The monitoring that takes place after a vaccine or drug has been approved and is regularly prescribed by doctors. This surveillance typically confirms that the treatment is safe. On rare occasions, it detects side effects in certain groups of people that were missed during clinical trials.
- Preclinical research: Studies that take place before the start of a clinical trial, typically involving experiments where a treatment is tested on cells or in animals.
- Viral vector vaccines: A type of vaccine that uses a harmless virus to chauffeur immune-system-stimulating ingredients into the human body. Viral vectors are used in several experimental Covid-19 vaccines, including those developed by AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson. Both of these companies are using a common cold virus called an adenovirus as their vector. The adenovirus carries coronavirus genes.
- Trial protocol: A series of procedures to be carried out during a clinical trial.
“If you do not introduce information about how to achieve vaccination, simply a favorable attitude will not take people to the vaccination site,” she said. “Without an understanding of the psychological and socio-structural processes leading to vaccination, it’s going to be difficult to get the 47 percent of people who don’t intend to vaccinate to do it.”
Research by the Covid Collaborative suggests that fewer than 20 percent of Black Americans believe that a vaccine will be safe or effective. Many respondents stated that they had little faith in the government’s ability to look after their interests or cited distrust stemming from past ethics violations, such as the infamous Tuskegee study, which tracked Black men infected with syphilis but did not treat them.
“In these highly vulnerable communities that are disproportionately affected by Covid, it’s a big, big trust-building exercise from the ground up,” said John Bridgeland, one of the founders and the chief executive of the Covid Collaborative. “They trust their physicians, their pharmacists, and so we have to go very local in having trusted messengers.”