Scientists are in a sprint to find a vaccine that could stamp out the coronavirus pandemic. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious diseases expert, said on Friday he's "cautiously optimistic" that a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine will be ready for distribution in early 2021.
But it's unclear how many people will actually get a vaccine if it's approved. Only about half of Americans said in May that they were willing to get a coronavirus vaccine.
That resistance doesn't surprise Dr. Sandra Quinn, a professor and chair of the family science department at the University of Maryland, whose work at the start of the H1N1 pandemic showed even more vaccine skepticism. A 2009 study she co-authored found that less than 10% of all respondents said they would embrace a vaccine, with many believing the perceived side effects would outweigh a relatively mild illness.
Distrust in government
But COVID-19 is deadlier than the swine flu, and she says the current opposition to a coronavirus vaccine is rooted in a climate of conflicting information.
"We have forces that undermine science, contradictory messages day in and day out that create skepticism and diminish trust in government," she told NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday.
For example, she said Operation Warp Speed, the Trump administration's name for the push to deliver an effective COVID-19 vaccine by early 2021, sends the wrong message.
She thinks that terminology has Americans worried that a speedy rollout for a vaccine might come at the expense of safety.
"What that does, I think, is automatically raise a concern by many that, you know, we have Dr. Fauci and others who know vaccine research saying typically it takes years," she said. "We are still looking for an HIV vaccine, right? Decades later."
A call to bolster communication outreach
Boosting American confidence in vaccines starts with educating the public about the vaccine trial processes, Quinn said — a handful of which are well underway.
Biotech company Moderna and the National Institutes of Health have entered the third phase of a vaccine trial, the penultimate phase that assesses a vaccine's side effects before studying long-term safety and effective immunity. Tens of thousands of people will need to be recruited for all of the vaccine trials that show promise.
The current pandemic has shown that COVID-19 hits some communities at higher rates, especially those of African Americans and Latinos, where the disparities are fueled in part by underlying health conditions and structural discrimination. Quinn said it's imperative that the vaccine trials include enough diverse participants of all races and genders to know whether a vaccine will be safe for populations with different health issues.
Unlike H1N1, she says, "people are going to perceive the [COVID-19] risk as high." Quinn says because of that perception, greater transparency is required.
"We can't sugarcoat perceived risk of a vaccine," she said. "Talking about just disease risk to people will not do the trick."
Another way to repair public trust, Quinn said, is to launch robust public outreach efforts that encourage communities to ask: "What are your questions about the vaccine?" She suggests that state and local health departments work with community partners, from NAACP chapters to Boys & Girls Clubs to religious groups.
If vaccine skeptics' trust in science is shaky, Quinn's research has found social norms can go a long way in persuading people to get vaccinated. "If you believe that all the people you love and that care for you think you should get the vaccine, you are more likely to get it," she said.
Ned Wharton and Hadeel Al-Shalchi produced and edited the interview for broadcast.
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