Opinion: How to instill public confidence in a Covid-19 vaccine
Some of this concern is warranted; it is critical that a vaccine is proved to be safe and effective before it is publicly available to assure it will reduce the disease burden and not cause undue harm. However, if a vaccine candidate is proved to be safe and beneficial to the public, it becomes imperative that it is widely administered.
So, what can be done now to instill public confidence in a vaccine if and when it proves to meet public health standards and scientific muster?
Committee meetings in a public forum
To ensure vaccine safety and provide an opportunity for the public to observe the data being discussed, vaccine trials should be reviewed by independent committees of experts in a public forum prior to vaccine approval and as administration programs are considered. Opportunities for public comments to the committees should also be prioritized. By doing this, concerned individuals will be able to hear firsthand the safety considerations that went into the critical decision making regarding the vaccine.
The right message, the right messenger, the right communication channel
To be sure, there is still work to be done to make sure the current vaccine candidates meet US standards. There are many questions that are not yet answered by the early data made public. But the past weeks have been a major step in the right direction; we now have proof of principle — that Covid-19 can be prevented by a vaccine. And the reported data suggest the vaccines are relatively safe.
Fortunately, there are many more vaccines in clinical trials, so we may eventually have choices of vaccines and assure supplies are available to vaccinate large proportions of the population to induce both individual and community protection. But at the end of the day, vaccines don’t save lives. Vaccinations save lives. A vaccine dose that remains in the vial is 0% effective regardless of the results of the clinical trials.
Therefore, it is critical to assure the public that the vaccine benefits far exceed any risks. To do that, we need the right message, delivered by the right messenger through the right communications channel.
What is particularly important is that the messengers have the trust of the public. Whether it is Dr. Anthony Fauci, Dr. Deborah Birx or any other health official who becomes a household name as we get closer to a vaccine’s rollout, they must speak honestly in terms the public can understand, and deliver the message through trusted channels, such as national and local news outlets.
It will also be important for national health officials to provide critical information to primary care providers to help them in discussing risks and benefits with their patients, as these physicians are often the most trusted sources of information.
With rampant misinformation proliferating on social media, it is incumbent upon health officials at all levels to be intentional and transparent with the information they share about these vaccines. Only then, with the trust of the public and a widespread vaccination effort underway, can we embark upon the beginning of the end of the coronavirus pandemic.