At the time of writing, the world is currently undergoing the largest vaccination programme in its history, in light of the crippling COVID-19 pandemic. Approximately 218 Million doses have been administered across 99 countries, and the rate is increasing daily. However, lurking beneath this evolving success story for modern medicine and public health, is a much more sinister undertone. Within our fully globalised and increasingly digitalised world, fake news and misinformation is rife. Increasingly, people are turning to the internet and social media to source healthcare information, often resulting in a polarized and misinformed public. There is arguably no area where this has a greater impact than within the vaccine debate, where the war wages strong. As of May 2020, approximately 100 million users of Facebook had expressed a view on vaccines and vaccination, with anti-vaxxer communities having a demonstratable influence on the overall sentiment of social media users.Birth of the modern anti-vaxx movement
But this debate is nothing new. Ever since the first vaccination, developed by Edward Jenner in 1796 against smallpox, there has been vaccine hesitancy. Peaks and troughs of acceptance have since played out over the years, with periods of increased vaccination, rising opposition, protests, drops in vaccine coverage, localised disease outbreaks, and then greater appreciation and uptake. However, the modern wave can be traced to 1998, when Andrew Wakefield published the now infamous paper that incorrectly linked the MMR vaccine (measles, mumps, and rubella) to autism, turbocharging the anti-vaxxer movement and undermining the work of scientists and pharmaceutical companies globally. The impact this single event has had on public health cannot be underestimated.
Despite the paper being retracted and Wakefield being stripped of his medical license a decade later, it seemed the damage was done. The paper served to capture and amplify the fears of the general public both sides of the Atlantic, resulting in a significant drop in vaccination rates and consequential disease outbreaks.
Fanning the flames
Since then, with the advent of social media, anti-vaxxer communities have been provided with the optimal platform to amplify their message, percolating ever-increasing levels of the population. In 2019, the WHO named vaccine hesitancy as one of the top 10 threats to global health, demonstrating the infiltration of this narrative.
Fast forward to today, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and this challenge has never been greater. Public health has risen in everyone’s consciousness, and confusion and fear have served only to exacerbate the situation. This unprecedented public awareness has resulted in extreme scrutiny being placed on the pharmaceutical companies leading the development of vaccines.
Despite an initial optimism that the pandemic may serve to somewhat quash the rising anti-vaxxer movement, early signs suggest it may be having the opposite effect. Conspiracy theories and misinformation have circulated widely, taking advantage of people’s vulnerability and legitimate uncertainty in a time of crisis, and taking the anti-vaccine conversation from the fringes into the mainstream.
Contradicting this, however, is the notion that trust in the pharmaceutical industry is at an all-time high. This can be attributed to several co-existing factors. Firstly, collaboration from otherwise rival companies on the development and roll out of vaccines has helped to somewhat undo the negative perceptions sometimes associated with big pharma. The increased publicity as a result of the pandemic has also helped shine a light on the R&D and manufacturing process, helping to demonstrate and validate the large investments made from the industry that often draws criticism. Lastly but by no means least, has been the rise of smaller pharma and biotech companies that until last year were relatively unknown. Now household names, COVID-19 has helped bolster public awareness of those who are often the champions of innovation. All of this suggests the pandemic is serving to further polarize public opinion.
This presents a truly unique and unparalleled challenge for pharma in the coming years. As the public have seen first-hand the enormous disruption that can be caused by life-threatening diseases, pharma may be able to take advantage of the opportunity to boost support for vaccination, and for the industry as a whole.
History may look back at this pandemic with a fond view on pharma, which through its collective efforts were able to pull off nothing less than a remarkable feat – companies should consider how best to ride this wave of optimism, and look to how they can redefine themselves in a post-COVID world.
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