Anti-Vaxxers Feed Off Democrats' Skepticism of COVID Vaccine

Democratic politicians raising concerns about how quickly coronavirus vaccines could be rolled out to the public appear to be bolstering anti-vax groups. By highlighting issues around the vaccine development process, politicians on the left may be inadvertently increasing skepticism among the wider public.

"I think it's the visibility," Robert F. Kennedy Jr. told Newsweek. "[There's] more eyeballs on the process than has ever occurred in the past. Vaccine development in the past has been very obscure. There has not been much transparency and the first time people hear about vaccines is when the CDC recommends them.

"This time because of the pandemic and because there's a lot of people for the first time saying we may be forced to take this, that a lot more people are looking at it. People for the first time are seeing how the sausage gets made."

Kennedy, a lawyer and prominent anti-vaccine activist, said that around the middle of August—when the Trump administration began suggesting a vaccine may be ready before the November 3 election—Democratic leaders started voicing skepticism about the development process for the first time. And concerns about the speed at which vaccines are being developed, and the potential for their release via Emergency Use Authorization (EUA,) have now been raised by many political leaders.

On September 24, New York governor Andrew Cuomo said the state will independently review all vaccines authorized by the federal government. "Frankly, I'm not going to trust the federal government's opinion and I wouldn't recommend to New Yorkers based on the federal government's opinion," he said in a statement.

This lack of trust in the government was picked up on by some anti-vax groups, saying Cuomo was reiterating their own arguments against vaccines generally. Cuomo's spokesman Richard Azzopardi responded to these groups, telling Newsweek "the anti-science crowd should knock it off and stop twisting our words."

"What we don't trust is a federal government that has been caught red-handed multiple times circumventing the health experts and ‎making political decisions seemingly to boost the president's re-election chances."

At the start of September, Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris said she would not trust President Donald Trump's word alone that any vaccine developed is safe and efficient.

A week later, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden made similar remarks during a speech in Delaware, saying, "I trust vaccines, I trust scientists, but I don't trust Donald Trump."

Meanwhile, Nancy Pelosi, Democratic speaker of the United States House of Representatives, has said any vaccine must meet safety standards before being released if it is to be accepted by the public.

"Unless there is confidence that the vaccine has gone through the clinical trials, and then is approved by the independent scientific advisory committee, as established to do just this, there will be doubts that people will have."

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A demonstrator holds a Biden Harris sign ahead of the first presidential debate in Ohio on September 29. Democratic politicians have voiced concerns about whether the Trump administration is rushing through a vaccine for coronavirus. MEGAN JELINGER/AFP via Getty Images

According to a survey from the Pew Research Center carried out between September 8 and 13, half of U.S. adults now say they probably or definitely would not get a vaccine to prevent COVID-19, if it were available today.

While vaccine skepticism was still higher among Republicans—as it has been historically—there was a marked increase among Democrats. In May, 50 percent said they would "definitely" get the vaccine. By September, this had fallen to 24 percent.

Prominent voices beyond politicians have also openly said they would not get vaccinated. In an interview with the New York Times on Monday, Elon Musk said neither he nor his family would be inoculated: "I'm not at risk for COVID, nor are my kids," he said.

"There is undeniably a lot more skepticism about vaccines," Kennedy said. "It's gone from maybe 5 to 10 percent to up to 50 percent range. I think it's a good thing people are watching [the vaccine development process]."

In a Facebook post, Texans For Vaccine Choice founder Jackie Schlegel also said there had been a surge in support from both political sides. She said the aim of the group was to promote vaccine choice and informed consent, rather than stop people getting vaccinated.

Shlegel told Newsweek there had been a six-fold increase in membership since the start of the pandemic, with parents concerned at the potential of another vaccine being mandated—especially one that is being rushed.

"What's uniting many people are concerns that this potentially fast-tracked, liability-free vaccine will be mandated to return to normal life," she said. "Having top Democrat leaders raise these questions has given an even greater voice to the concerns shared by many who believe in sound science, safe vaccines, and industry accountability."

Discussing people's concerns—and what could be done to alleviate them—Schlegel said the industry must be transparent in its processes and encourage the public to make informed medical decisions with their health providers.

"Censorship of the conversation, mainly condemning voices that even ask questions about a potential vaccination, in concert with ever-changing recommendations from government entities only deepen the concerns from many Americans," she said. "The doctor-patient relationship must come first, and a quick-to-market vaccine must not be mandated for anyone."

Scott Rosenstein, director of global health group at political risk consultancy Eurasia Group, told Newsweek that within the current, highly politicized environment, messages about vaccine safety and science are getting twisted.

He said that while it is possible—albeit unlikely—that a safe and effective vaccine becomes available before the election, Trump's dealings with the U.S. Food and Drugs Administration relating to EUAs has muddied the water in terms of support for a coronavirus vaccine.

"What complicates this further is that this growing vaccine skepticism is the result of legitimate concerns around a hasty, politicized approval as well as illegitimate conspiracy theories and vaccine misinformation," Rosenstein said.

"So it's a difficult position for any political actor to be in, and these risks probably won't go away if a vaccine shows compelling safety and efficacy evidence even after the election."

Rosenstein said any vaccine that gets labeled as a "Trump" or "Biden" creation will lead to a lower uptake.

"It's also important to remember that the Venn diagram of Trump supporters and anti-vaxxers has a lot of overlap. So this group will likely be unwilling to get the vaccine no matter how and when it's approved. And the anti-vaxxers on the left are likely going to be similarly reluctant to get any vaccine," Rosenstein said.

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Anti-vaccine activists protest and hold signs in front of the Massachusetts State House on August 30 against a mandate that school children must get the flu vaccine. Interest in anti-vax groups has increased since coronavirus vaccines started to be developed. Scott Eisen/Getty Images

Rosenstein thinks it is unlikely more than half the country will have been vaccinated by the end of 2021, even if there is enough supply. This would prolong the pandemic, delay the return to normalcy and potentially lower the overall faith in vaccines, he said.

"So, supporters of evidence-based decision making don't have too many options. Pushing back against assaults on our public health agencies and approval processes in the hopes that the most possible people will maintain faith in the process, even if that number is lower than most public health experts would prefer, may be the best of a bad set of options," Rosenstein said.

Georges C. Benjamin, Executive Director of the American Public Health Association, is confident any vaccine put out to the public will be safe and effective, but said that at the "end of the day no therapeutic is effective unless people want to take it."

"[Politicization is] causing enormous problems with public trust," he told Newsweek, adding that Trump is not even communicating with his own best interests in mind. "He shoots from the hip all the time… He does a lot to undermine his own case. Starting with the name Operation Warp Speed. [That] would not have been my choice for the name of a program if I was strategically trying to get people's confidence."

Health experts say the best way to improve public trust in vaccines is to be transparent and make scientists and public health officials the primary communicators of information relating to them. The failure to do this is behind the fall in trust, Rosenstein said.

"Our country is so polarized that any messages delivered by politicians will naturally engender skepticism from close to half the country, so even the most measured vaccine communications from a politician may still not convince a large percentage of the population that vaccination is a good idea," Rosenstein said.

The chasm between public perception and scientific confidence was also highlighted by Benjamin: "As I speak to people who are involved in vaccine research, they have confidence in the science that they're doing. They're trying not to get rushed and they're trying not to get pushed in ways that make no sense."

Benjamin reiterated Kennedy's stance that having the vaccine development process watched so closely is having an impact. He also said he believes vaccines are being oversold as a panacea to the virus. But this is not the case. Instead, vaccines will provide another means of controlling the disease, but the public will be wearing masks and socially distancing for a long time to come.

"Vaccines are safe and effective," Benjamin said. "The early evidence is that the COVID vaccine looks pretty safe and that it does elicit an immune response and we're still waiting to find out how protective it is."

He also said much more research needs to be done before it is provided to every member of society.

"There's a lot of discussion going around about kids getting the vaccine. We've not done enough research on the vaccine in kids. Right now this is an adult discussion—and they're going to have more robust studies on children and pregnant women," Benjamin said.

Kennedy does not think children should be given any coronavirus vaccine developed. The risk of the virus has been found to be significantly lower among children compared with adults, so he says it does not make sense to risk the side effects.

However, he also doesn't believe an effective vaccine will be developed any time soon: "I think the chances of them finding a functional vaccine are very small."

But if a vaccine is developed, and it is found to be safe and effective, Kennedy said he would have it: "If they come up with a vaccine that does what people think the vaccine is going to do, where you get one shot and then you're protected for life, and it's safe for all age groups, then I would absolutely take it," he said.

"That means serious injuries and deaths are less than one in a million, which is the metric the CDC uses. Then I would certainly take it."

Anti-Vaxxers Feed Off Democrats' Skepticism of COVID Vaccine | Health