Oxford vaccine – developed in partnership with AstraZeneca – stop 70% of people who develop COVID symptoms. And depending on how the doses are given, it can even protect up to 90% of people. This follows recent announcements from Pfizer and van Moderna that their vaccines provide more than 90% efficacy.
The positive news about COVID-19 vaccines has been met with unbridled joy in most resorts. However, the growing momentum of the anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists is worrying. With few regulations to stop their scurrying on social media, they are influencing others to become increasingly hesitant about the COVID-19 vaccines.
In a recent report it was suggested 9% of people in the UK would probably not take a COVID-19 vaccine, while about 27% were unsure. These numbers are worrying. It is estimated that 60-70% of people need to be vaccinated against COVID-19 to achieve herd immunity – the point at which its transmission begins to drop dramatically. But what can be done to address this?
In addition to legislation against false statements by anti-vaxxers on social media, the silent majority pro-vaccine should be more pronounced. Local community leaders, including teachers, religion and health, who are more trusted than national authorities and institutions need to address.
People should be reassured that the COVID-19 vaccine has not been ‘rushed’. It is produced faster than other vaccines for several reasons. First, almost the entire biomedical research world has discontinued what it has done to focus on COVID-19. The German small company BioNtech, for example, was developing treatments for cancer before switching to COVID-19 to produce the successful new mRNA vaccine with Pfizer.
Second, critical stages of vaccine development and production run in parallel. The British government, for example, has paid for mass production of several vaccines in the hope that at least one will work, even if others who do not work have to be invaded.
Finally, as someone who sits on various government security and regulation committees, I can give the assurance that we are not making a dent. We investigate in the usual way, but in a much stricter time frame.
In 2019, after a major surge in cases of measles, a disease preventable by vaccines, the WHO declared a hesitation about the vaccine ten biggest threats global health (emerging infections and pandemics were also on the list). The increase in British affairs has prompted Health Minister Matt Hancock to consider how compulsory vaccinations for children could work. We have had compulsory vaccination in England before: vaccination against smallpox, a deadly killer since the Middle Ages, was compulsory in England and Wales from 1853 to 1971. The disease was finally exterminated worldwide in 1980.
Most parents who do not get their children vaccinated against measles and other child threats are not harsh antivaxxers. For most, it is a combination of logistical problems to get to the clinic, along with a slight hesitation about vaccines.
In Australia, where voting is compulsory, you must show up at the polling station and put your ballot paper in the box, even if you do not vote. A similar approach can be applied to vaccination. Parents can go to the doctor’s surgery, read the information sheet and discuss it with the doctor if necessary. Even if they ultimately decide not to vaccinate, it would at least be through an informed choice, rather than through a mixture of apathy and ambivalence.
Although governments cannot force people to vaccinate their children, they can punish those who do not. Several countries, including France, Italy and Australia, have done so in recent years, for example to ban unvaccinated children from public schools or to limit the benefits to parents of unvaccinated children. It is interesting that in France not only has the use of vaccines increased, but also the confidence in vaccines: the population seems reassured by the government’s belief that this is the right thing to do.
How can similar laws be applied to COVID-19 in the UK? School restrictions can work for children, but not for adults. However, vaccinations for adults may be banned at pubs, clubs, football stadiums and other crowded places where transmission risk is high. A map or an app can prove people’s vaccination status, and I think the hospitality sector will be willing to enforce it if it keeps the virus out and opens the premises.
Those who feel that compulsory vaccination is a terrible violation of civil liberties that can never be benefited in the UK need only think back to January 2020. Even when Wuhan was locked up, few people saw the same thing within weeks in the UK. UK would happen.
With better control over the propaganda of anti-vaxxers over COVID-19 vaccines, and joint efforts to educate and reassure those who have doubts, such strong measures will hopefully not be necessary. But if so, the government and society must now begin to reflect on the moral, ethical and practical implications of compulsory vaccination.
Tom Solomon, Director of the National Institute of Health Research (NIHR)’s unit for health protection in emerging and zoonotic infections, and Professor of Neurology, University of Liverpool, University of Liverpool