While more Americans said they wanted to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in late November than at any earlier point in the pandemic, only 60% told the Pew Research Center they would definitely or probably sign up for the shots. Another 18% responded that they probably would not get the vaccine, but also held out the possibility that they might change their minds once people start getting vaccinated and they receive more information. Even among those likely to get the vaccine, relatively few said they wanted to be among the first in line.
Of course, nervousness about immunization is not restricted to COVID-19. The World Health Organization declared vaccine hesitancy one of the top 10 threats to global health in January 2019, and it has driven repeated outbreaks of measles in the United States in recent years.
In general, vaccine hesitancy comes down to a handful of factors, many of which pharmacists can readily address. The CDC and other agencies have sought to allay some of those fears.
Here are some of the concerns and information pharmacists can use to counter arguments against getting vaccinated:
Lack of confidence in the process: With the COVID-19 vaccine, the most significant issues have revolved around fears that a “rushed” vaccine could be ineffective or dangerous. For individuals worried about this, the record-breaking development of the vaccines under Operation Warp Speed in the U.S. created less a reason for celebration than a cause for concern.
So how was it so fast? Technological innovations such as artificial intelligence reduced the time needed to identify the virus’s component parts (sequencing) from years to days and enabled virtual testing of thousands of different strategies to find those most likely to work in the laboratory. Decades of research on the specific technologies underlying the vaccines—50 years in the case of the mRNA vaccines developed by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna/NIH—made applying the process to vaccine delivery fairly straightforward.
Further, the U.S. government’s commitment of an unheard of $6 billion to enable manufacturers to ramp up production of six potential vaccines even before clinical trials ended. That enabled distribution of large quantities of vaccine immediately if they gained Emergency Use Authorization from the FDA. The government’s bet played out as hoped in mid-December with the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.
At the same time, the FDA stuck to its well-developed process in its review of the vaccines’ safety and efficacy, following each step used to vet previous vaccines, though on an accelerated schedule. The Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine trials reported out remarkable efficacy, both at about 95%. That compares well to the measles vaccine, the gold standard for immunizations, which has a 97% effectiveness in two doses. By comparison, the varicella vaccine is 92% effective and the influenza vaccine has averaged about 44% over the last decade.
Safety concerns: Many skeptics have expressed concerns about vaccine side effects and safety or that they could get COVID-19 from the shot. Neither Moderna nor Pfizer/BioNTech has reported significant safety concerns with hundreds of thousands vaccines in the trials.
About 9% of volunteers in the Pfizer/BioNTech trials experienced side effects, particularly after the second dose, which some described as like a brief, bad case of the flu, with headache, muscle pain, fever, and chills that lasted for 24 hours or less. The CDC advised that the side effects indicate that the body is building immunity. The CDC also noted that individuals could still contract COVID-19 for a few weeks after vaccination as their immune system kicks in. In addition, the vaccine will not cause patients to test positive on COVID-19 viral tests.
The FDA and CDC advise individuals with severe allergies to its ingredients or who have experienced severe reactions to the first dose to not take the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine based on reactions in individuals vaccinated in the U.K. who had severe allergies. People with severe allergic reaction to another vaccine or injectable therapy may be vaccinated with caution and approval of their primary care physician. One unfounded fear about the mRNA vaccines is that they could alter someone’s DNA.
The mRNA from the vaccines never penetrates the nucleus of a cell, so it never comes in contact with DNA and cannot change it.
Complacency: Despite more than 300,000 deaths from COVID-19 in the U.S. by early December, many of those who express concerns about the vaccine also say that they are not worried about contracting the coronavirus. While older people, Black, and Hispanic individuals and those with underlying condition are at the greatest risk of serious illness or death, even those who do not experience symptoms run the risk of spreading the virus to more vulnerable family, colleagues, and friends.
While many young people get only a mild case of COVID-19, others have died from the disease. Some who have experienced just mild or moderate symptoms have developed “long COVID,” in which debilitating fatigue and other symptoms can disrupt daily life for months and perhaps longer. Others—including those with no symptoms—have developed myocarditis, which has sidelined even young athletes for months. The long-term consequences of a SARS-CoV-2 infection remain largely unknown.
The content contained in this article is for informational purposes only. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice. Reliance on any information provided in this article is solely at your own risk.