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Weighing up the science makes it easy to rebuff COVID-19 vaccine misinformation

Sultan Althari

Published: Updated:

The COVID-19 vaccine story has almost invariably revolved around scarcity: eligibility in light of limited supply, vaccine nationalism, and access precedence. Greater vaccine availability is shifting that narrative to one that revolves around personal conviction. Another, more subtle shift is simultaneously taking place: the global pandemic is slowly calcifying into an equally contagious infodemic where the lines between fact and fiction are increasingly blurred.

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This problem is amplified for skeptics - myself included - outside the scientific community who lack the subject-matter expertise to critically assess the difference. But that didn’t stop me from delving into the data and ultimately arriving at the decision to take the jab. Many outsiders - in the policy realm and beyond - are skipping on the vaccine for reasons largely based on misinformation. In essence, vaccine resistance has taken the form of one of the following five claims:

First on the list is the assertion that the long-term side effects of the vaccine are unknown, and therefore potential risks outweigh the benefits. There are at least three compelling reasons to dismiss this concern. First, long-term evidence from previous vaccines – like those for polio, yellow fever, MMR, and influenza – suggest that when rare side effects do occur, they manifest within the first two months of vaccination and do not extend beyond the short-term. Second, the mRNA from vaccines degrades rapidly, rendering it biologically improbable that any side effects will persist into the long-term.

Most importantly, we erroneously think of vaccines as drugs, when in reality they are simply leveraging our natural immune system’s ability to fight disease. Drugs tend to inhibit and interfere in natural physiological process whereas vaccines amplify them.

Long-term effects aside, wasn’t the vaccine developed too fast? Not quite. mRNA vaccines have been in development for decades, and more specifically, COVID-19 vaccines actually began development long before COVID-19 was identified given the virus’ similarity with other coronaviruses like SARS and MERS - both of which have been extensively researched. Scientists adeptly built off that research to deploy the vaccine at record-breaking pace. Rapid vaccine development should therefore be seen as a scientific triumph to be celebrated rather than a quick-fix to fear.

Infographic: New coronavirus cases detected in Saudi Arabia. (Stock image)
Infographic: New coronavirus cases detected in Saudi Arabia. (Stock image)

The third set of claims center around the fact that vaccinated individuals can still catch and spread COVID-19, defeating the purpose of getting vaccinated in the first place. This rationale is similar to saying I can still die in a car crash while wearing a seatbelt.

The vaccine isn’t a cure for the virus, but rather a very effective layer of protection, making it less likely to have a serious reaction to it, catch it, and transmit it if you do happen to become infected. Vaccine efficacy is evaluated on its ability to reduce the chances of symptomatic disease, shorten contagious periods and lower viral loads – most COVID-19 vaccines pass these metrics with flying colors.

Fourth, notable vaccine resistance is attributed to the belief that the vaccine seems riskier than COVID-19 itself. A recent YouGov poll found that over 90 percent of Americans who don’t plan to get vaccinated fear potential vaccine side effects more than the virus itself. Merely 16 percent of them believe new cases of COVID-19 are occurring among the unvaccinated. Respondents also think the virus is spreading equally among the vaccinated and the unvaccinated – a claim that data renders false.

In the US alone, 35 million people contracted the virus, leading to a little over 600 thousand deaths. When juxtaposed with the 340 million doses of vaccines administered and 6 thousand deaths in that time frame, it is clear that there is no room for comparison.

The last claim is specific to the younger demographic, who justify vaccine resistance with the fact that they are not among those most vulnerable to COVID-19. Data from hospitals across the US begs to differ: most hospitals operating at full capacity today are primarily inundated by young, unvaccinated patients. Experts also point to the fact that younger patients are particularly vulnerable to post-COVID-19 fatigue syndrome in which the virus negatively impacts organs and neuropsychiatric outcomes beyond the immediate contraction period - the depth and magnitude of these ramifications are still under study.

While it is true that younger patients are not at a high risk of death, their total risk for morbidity – complications other than death – may be higher. If these reasons aren’t compelling enough, individuals in younger age brackets have a clear moral argument against vaccine resistance: unvaccinated individuals give the virus greater latitude to mutate and spread through communities, jeopardizing the safety of vulnerable segments of the population in the process. Those segments almost invariably include their own parents, extended family, and friends.

Our indiscriminate enjoyment of being right is matched by an almost equally indiscriminate feeling that we are exposed to the right information. Increasingly divisive echo chambers across social, political, and ideological lines are an unsurprising byproduct.

Biases - both within and beyond the scientific community - are infiltrating global public health and redefining the gap between subjective and objective information. Polls show that about a fifth of Americans refuse to get a COVID-19 vaccine, and the divide is highly partisan. If misinformation seeps into these fissures, public trust suffers. Science is a dispassionate process – the onus is on both scientists and policymakers to ensure misinformation doesn’t taint it.

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.