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DAVOS 2021: Biggest coronavirus vaccination rollout threat isn't about supply — it's conspiracy theories

A bottle of a covid-19 vaccine on a reflective surface with the outline of  the world in red in the background -3D render. Photo: Getty
A bottle of a covid-19 vaccine on a reflective surface with the outline of the world in red in the background -3D render. Photo: Getty

It’s been just over a year since the first case of COVID-19 was reported to the World Health Organization (WHO). In March 2020, it was then classed as a global pandemic.

Now, in January 2021, countries across the globe are starting to roll out vaccinations for coronavirus that has led to nearly 100 million cases and out of those, of which 2 million people have died.

Vaccines made by AstraZeneca (AZN.L), Pfizer (PFE)/BioNTech (BNTX), and Moderna (MRNA) have largely been approved across various countries. Vaccination rollouts have been a huge challenge globally, such as in UK, Germany, US. Even over the last few days, it emerged that AstraZeneca plans to cut deliveries of the COVID-19 vaccine.

The reduction will see deliveries to the EU cut by 60% to 31 million doses in the first quarter of the year. It blamed production problems, meaning the number of initial available doses would be lower than expected. The jab developed in coordination with Oxford University is already in widespread use in Britain but the bloc has yet to approve it.

WATCH: CDC director: “I cannot tell you how much vaccine we have”

Leaders at the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) annual gathering of the most powerful people in the world — dubbed The Davos Agenda, this year — warned that gaining the public’s trust and disseminating fake news and conspiracy theories are one of the key issues that need to be tackled right now.

Peter Maurer, president, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), who spoke on the “Responding to the COVID-19 Crisis” panel on Monday said that “importance in building trust in [government] policy measures in response to COVID and working closely with local communities” is key in properly tackling the crisis. “You need to get buy-in” from the communities you operate in, he added, saying that this is essential in battling the pandemic for good.

In other panel discussion on Monday morning, entitled “Boosting Vaccine Confidence,” Ben Page, the chief executive of respected polling agency Ipsos MORI, warned that conspiracy theories around the COVID vaccine are a particular problem and could prevent the uptake needed in order to truly get the world back to what it was before.

The link between social media and conspiracy theories

Photo: Getty
Photo: Getty

Across the globe, surveys indicate that only 73% of people would get a COVID-19 vaccine if available, with the number as low as 40% in some countries.

He said that, when looking at the data, there is a high correlation with those who believe in conspiracy theories and their amount of activity on social media, such as YouTube, which is owned by Google (GOOG) and Facebook (FB). He called for a look into how to manage this and regulation of social media to dispel harmful information being released prolifically.

“When you also look at how governments are tackling the crisis the best, those who communicate regularly and are consistent with [their policies] are far better than those who continually change the goal posts and are inconsistent in terms of messaging,” he added.

READ MORE: DAVOS 2021: Why New Zealand is one of most successful countries in tackling COVID-19

Heidi Larson, Professor of Anthropology, Risk and Decision Science at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said she liaises regularly with social media giants and warned it is not as easy as one thinks to shut off the dissemination of fake news.

She said “it’s not straight forward” in classifying information en-masse as “fake or real news.” Larson points out that a lot of information is ambiguous and are “quite clever” in manipulating facts, “turning questions into statements, and seeding doubt doubt and more anxiety” into people’s lives. In fact, these conspiracy theories “endorse peoples concerns and it’s hard to delete as a lot are not overt” in their false information.

Larson says that new ways of communicating with the public need to be addressed in order to overcome this dangerous rise in conspiracy theory uptake.

WATCH: COVID Conspiracy theories are a 'disinformation bonfire'

Larson divides those who receive information into three buckets — the base, the swing vote, the opposition.

She says that government or health bodies have been very focused, and take for granted, the base vote — the ones who say and believe to take the vaccine without question, and not the the swing vote — those who have been undecided on whether they are for or against taking the vaccine. She says this swing vote is much larger than people anticipated and are vulnerable to moving to the “highly-organised” opposition.

“We have been too comfortable with the base — the monotone of ‘take the vaccine’ — and not taking questioners seriously and now they are slipping into the opposition,” she says.

Her fellow panelist, Tan Chorh Chuan, executive director, Office for Healthcare Transformation, Ministry of Health of Singapore, agreed and that governments need to look at “multiple new channels” in order to engage with the public and restore confidence.

Page reminded that tackling this will be crucial to the vaccine rollout and in overcoming the global pandemic.

“There are people who have ‘motivated ignorance’ — wanting to believe there is a single reason for what’s happening and retreat into this closed world [of belief]. It can be quite appealing to [believe in conspiracy theories] are it explains everything [in a simple way] what’s happening but telling people fact isn’t going to get them out of it. Fact and emotion is what we’re up against.”