The coronavirus pandemic, it seems, has made experts of us all. Whether it’s your friend's little sister who thinks being two terms into a medicine degree gives her license to speak “on behalf of doctors everywhere” or your Daily Express-reading uncle who keeps forwarding “Chinese Virus” conspiracy theories to the family WhatsApp, it feels like every time you look up somebody else has acquired a PhD-level knowledge of virology and some Opinions™. One group of people, however, have remained suspiciously quiet as of late: anti-vaxxers.
Opposition to vaccination has been gathering pace for some time now. Not only among mums on "organic food Facebook", but among swathes of Republican politicians, Hollywood celebrities and the religious far-right. We've seen vaccination rates in decline across the US and the UK, with alarming results: last year the US experienced their worst measles outbreak since 1992, while the World Health Organisation recently removed the UK’s "measles-free" status. But now that we're facing the vastest and deadliest pandemic since the 1918 Spanish influenza outbreak, have any of these anti-vaxxers changed their minds?
Del Bigtree, founder of one of America's most prominent anti-vaccination groups Information Consent Action Network (ICAN), remains staunch in his views. “Every single vaccine we give our kids, somebody has had a bad reaction to,” Del tells me. “This is one of the few places in our life where we just take experts’ word for it. We assume they’re right and we don’t question it. I’m simply a consumer advocate that is trying to make sure that the products we take are proven to be safe.”
When it comes to a coronavirus vaccine, Del is particularly concerned about America’s efforts to be the first country to produce it. “I think it is perfectly noble to want to create a product that protects people from a disease, but where we really have issues is when our medical institutions are rushing the science,” he says. “You shouldn’t rush to create a product you can inject into perfectly healthy people without doing proper safety studies. In America what they’re saying is that they think we can have a vaccine within 12-18 months. We’re starting the first human trials and we’ve skipped animal trials to get to them. Those first 45 people are going to be monitored for four months. That is a short trial and a tiny group of people.”
Experts have expressed fears that misinformation and scaremongering from the anti-vaxxer community might make it difficult for us to eradicate COVID-19 completely once a vaccine becomes available. Conspiracy theories abound when it comes to vaccination, particularly in certain regions where legal battles continue to rage. “If you’re still thinking it’s coincidental that a pandemic erupted in the midst of a state by state sweep to remove your right to refuse vaccination, it’s time to get your head out of the sand,” reads one post on the vaccine-sceptic Facebook group Oregonians for Healthcare Choice. In fact, according to recent research by Emerson Polling, more than ten percent of Americans wouldn’t get a coronavirus vaccine, which is frightening considering the rate at which it spreads.
Wellness coach Caylan Wagar advocates parental choice when it comes to vaccination. You might recognise her from the recent Netflix documentary Pandemic, in which she defended her views in the wake of a recent bill that “removes ability of parents to decline required immunizations against restrictable diseases” in Oregon. “For me it’s not about whether you vaccinate or you don’t, it’s us having the choice to do what we think is best for our child,” she explains in the documentary. When it comes to coronavirus, Caylan stands by what she said. “At this point in time I would never give my kid any vaccine related to the coronavirus,” she tells me. “I believe they have a healthy, functioning immune system and if they get it they will be more than okay.”
But while current evidence suggests very few children will develop a severe infection after contracting COVID-19, there's nothing to stop them from passing it onto those more vulnerable to the virus. This might be true of any of the diseases we commonly get vaccinated for, but the threat that this particular virus poses to the elderly and immunocompromised people, the speed by which it spreads and the resulting strain on healthcare provisions worldwide has brought this home for a lot of vaccine-sceptics.
Charlene, a respiratory therapist from California, has declined to vaccinate herself or her kids since she was pregnant with her first child 16 years ago. “I haven’t received any kind of vaccine since I had a routine flu shot and went into preterm labor shortly after,” Charlene tells me. “I consider myself one of the lucky ones, as I’ve heard that many women miscarry after a routine flu shot. After that I began having serious doubts that vaccines were safe,” she says (the CDC has proven that there is no connection between the flu shot and miscarriage).
Despite Charlene's wariness, the current coronavirus pandemic has made her reconsider her views. Her doubts about the safety of vaccines have been eclipsed by her worries about the safety of those around her. “I don’t consider myself or my family high risk enough to necessarily get the vaccine, but I am leaning toward getting it to create the so-called 'herd immunity',” she says. “This virus is catastrophic to our healthcare system and the economy around the world and it must be stopped in its tracks.”
Rachel*, a council administrator from Bristol, has also found that her position on vaccines has been complicated by the coronavirus pandemic. Having given birth to her first child in October last year, she was initially intending not to give her daughter the MMR vaccine, which she is due to receive later this year. Like many parents, she cites fears around the MMR vaccine and autism as a major factor in her decision, despite the fact these links have regularly been disproven.
“When the overwhelming majority of parents do choose to give their children this vaccine, the risk of my daughter contracting measles is very low anyway, so I’d rather not risk her having a bad reaction to it,” Rachel tells me in an email.
“Having said that, I never would have imagined the situation we’re in now with coronavirus and it has got me questioning myself,” she admits. “My niece is at risk if she gets coronavirus because she needs to take immune-suppressing medication. The worry about that has made me think about the responsibilities I have as a mother to stop diseases from being passed onto people who would be in serious danger. I hadn’t ever considered it as a reason why you would get your child vaccinated before all of this. I would say it has made me far more on the fence.”
It’s already clear that this pandemic will be the worst health crisis in living memory. At the time of publishing, over three quarters of a million people have contracted the virus, with over 39,000 deaths globally and healthcare providers worldwide overwhelmed by the demand on their services. With dozens of countries introducing drastic measures and the virus still spreading at an alarming rate, a vaccine currently looks like our best chance of being able to stop the spread of this devastating disease – but only if enough people actually get the vaccine once it arrives.
* Name has been changed