A COVID-19 Vaccine Has Come Quick, But Expert Says That's No Reason To Fear It

Nov 30, 2020
Originally published on November 30, 2020 2:23 pm

Two COVID-19 vaccines are moving toward an emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration, and both have been found to be more than 94% effective. Yet despite progress on the vaccine front, misinformation continues to spread, fueling doubts among skeptics who may decide not to take the vaccine at all.

Heidi Larson, the director of the Vaccine Confidence Project and author of the book Stuck: How Vaccine Rumors Start and Why They Don't Go Away, has seen this before. As an anthropologist who has spent years traveling the globe studying vaccine misinformation, she says "any news about vaccines always raises questions."

"One of the things I've learned is [to] never assume what's in the minds of people and the reasons that people question or refuse vaccines," Larson said in an interview with NPR's All Things Considered on Wednesday.

There are any number of factors that feed into distrust around vaccines, says Larson. For example, fear that freedom of choice is being restricted.

"That's something that has resurged in a big way in the context of COVID," she said. Wanting choice is "understandable," she said, but it sits on the line "between individual rights and public health rights."

Some people might believe a vaccine is "not natural," while others fear the "newness."

"For something new and unfamiliar, particularly in this hyper uncertain environment where every day you wake up and you're not sure what the guidance is going to be, that creates anxiety," she said.

Larson spoke with All Things Considered host Mary Louise Kelly about what's driving this anxiety, why the speed of the development process for a COVID-19 vaccine should not be taken to mean its unsafe and how she counsels talking to someone who is hesitant about vaccination.


Interview Highlights

On the message she wants people to hear about the safety of a COVID-19 vaccine

I think the message I'd like them to hear is the shortness of the vaccine development process, it's not the safety that has been compromised or shortened. There are many steps in the process of development, and in this case we had new funding mechanisms that made it possible to start quicker. We've shortened some of the administrative processes. We have new technologies, but the steps involving safety have not been shortened. They have not been compromised. And no vaccine will be delivered to the public before it really has enough confidence. And most importantly on the safety, no company wants a bad vaccine. No government wants a bad vaccine. No individual wants a bad vaccine. It's not in anyone's interest.

On how to have a conversation with someone who is hesitant about getting a COVID-19 vaccine

The most important thing is to hear them out, to listen. You may not agree with them, but I think that one of the reasons that I see that the anti- and questioning and skeptical voices have gotten louder is they feel like they've been shut down when they tried to express a concern or have their view. And it has kind of hardened the views because people feel cut out. And I think just listening and saying, "OK, I understand your side."

I always try to find some point where we can agree. Find some common ground. And there's usually something. It's very rare you don't find something you could talk about and start the conversation in a place you agree.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A vaccine is coming. And with a vaccine come skeptics, misinformation, also genuine questions. Anthropologist Heidi Larson has been traveling the globe for decades, listening to people's questions, their hesitancy about vaccines for various diseases, similar to conversations unfolding right now worldwide around the coronavirus. Heidi Larson is the director of the Vaccine Confidence Project. And she's author of the book "Stuck: How Vaccine Rumors Start And Why They Don't Go Away."

Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

HEIDI LARSON: Nice to be here.

KELLY: There's been a ton of promising vaccine news announced this month. And I want to start there with the news. What has that done for your work?

LARSON: Well, it certainly has kept me busy. Any news about vaccines always raises questions. People want to know more. When are we going to have it? How come it's so quick?

KELLY: How come it's so quick meaning they've developed it very, very quickly.

LARSON: Exactly.

KELLY: I mentioned you have done this work for years - talking to people, listening to their questions, trying to dispel rumors about vaccines. What is the most common reason people tell you that they're afraid to get a vaccine?

LARSON: One of the things I've learned is that never assume what's in the minds of people and the reasons that people question or refuse vaccines. But there are a few things. And I think even going back to the 1800s, when the first anti-vaccine movement was launched in the United Kingdom, some of the same things persist today, and they are liberty, freedom of choice. And that's something that has resurged in a big way in the context of COVID. The success...

KELLY: People don't like to be ordered to do something is what you're saying.

LARSON: Absolutely not (laughter). They want choice, and that's understandable. But when - in the case of vaccines, it sits really on the line between individual rights and public health rights. The other one is the - it's against nature; it's not natural. And in the case of the COVID vaccine, it's the newness - for something new and unfamiliar, particularly in this hyper uncertain environment where every day you wake up and you're not sure what the guidance is going to be. That creates anxiety.

KELLY: I mean, I hear you saying that there are often reasons why people might be hesitant, why people might latch on to misinformation. But given your title - director of the Vaccine Confidence Project - I assume you see it as your mission to persuade people otherwise. What is the message you would like them to hear now?

LARSON: I think the message I'd like them to hear is the shortness of the vaccine development process - it's not the safety that has been compromised or shortened. There are many steps in the process of development. And in this case, we had new funding mechanisms that made it possible to start quicker. We've shortened some of the administrative processes. We have new technologies. But the steps involving safety have not been shortened. They have not been compromised. And no vaccine will be delivered to the public before it really has enough confidence. And most importantly on the safety, no company wants a bad vaccine. No government wants a bad vaccine. No individual wants a bad vaccine. It's not in anyone's interest.

KELLY: What about for, you know, all of us, ordinary people? What tools can we use when we come across somebody - maybe a friend, maybe a relative - who's heard or read some kind of rumor who is hesitant about getting a COVID vaccine?

LARSON: The most important thing is to hear them out, to listen. You may not agree with them, but I think that one of the reasons that I see that the ante and questioning and skeptical voices have gotten louder is they feel like they've been shut down when they've tried to express a concern or have their view. And it's kind of hardened the views because people feel cut out.

And I think just listening and saying, OK, I understand your side. Then you bring in - I always try to find some point where we can agree. Find some common ground. And there's usually something. It's very rare you don't find something you could talk about. And start the conversation in a place you agree.

KELLY: That is Heidi Larson. She directs the Vaccine Confidence Project.

Thank you very much.

LARSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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