Experimental COVID-19 vaccine is put to its biggest test

Nurse Kathe Olmstead gives volunteer Melissa Harting of Harpersville, New York, an injection as the world’s biggest study of a possible COVID-19 vaccine, developed by the National Institutes of Health and Moderna Inc., gets underway Monday in Binghamton, New York. Hans Pennink/Associated Press

This uncertain and chaotic time has become a playground for conspiracy theorists, anti-vaccine proponents and charlatans.

Frustrations and tempers are growing as it becomes harder to figure out who to believe and what makes someone an expert in something.

People want accurate and definitive information, but an ever-evolving virus and spread makes that difficult.

It’s what led to Dr. Anthony Fauci to say that cruise vacations appeared OK in January and U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams to ask residents not to wear face masks in March.

Both changed their positions when more information about COVID-19 became available.

These shifts can create skeptics. It becomes an opening for people bent on putting out misinformation to forward their agenda, whether that’s anti-vaccine, community reopening or profile bolstering.

Medical science has traditionally enjoyed the highest public confidence among institutions for years, better than the military or media, according to the Pew Research Center.

That has only grown since the pandemic’s outbreak, with the most recent survey showing Americans believe medical scientists work in the best interest of the public.

But that poll was taken in April and May, before a couple of high-profile, social media-fueled propaganda pieces.

First came “Plandemic,” a documentary-styled video claiming masks activate the virus, beaches have healing powers, a vaccine will kill millions and Dr. Fauci is the evil behind it all.

Those positions were rooted in so many lies and distortions (including a problematic featured doctor) that YouTube and then other social media platforms removed it.

Next was a newly created group called America’s Frontline Doctors, which live-streamed a press conference discouraging mask-wearing, demonizing public health officials, advocating opening schools and saying hydroxychloroquine can cure COVID-19.

Multiple millions viewed, and believed, the claims before vetting by independent medical groups, infectious disease physicians and public health experts. No one had a chance to background the organization or doctors.

It didn’t take long to find red flags, falsehoods and questionable credentials.

None of the doctors work on the front lines of the pandemic, two no longer practice medicine and one no longer has a license, according to MedPage Today, a medical news service accredited for continuing medical education.

About hydroxychloroquine: Though it looked promising early on, numerous peer-reviewed studies showed it was ineffectual, prompting the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to revoke its use as treatment for COVID-19. The National Institutes of Health stopped trials.

The video event was organized by the Tea Party Patriots, a right-wing super PAC with ties to groups pushing to lift pandemic restrictions. The first web presence of the doctor group was July 15.

All responsible social media platforms took the video down.

Everyone has a First Amendment right to speak, but that doesn’t shield them from criticism, scrutiny or responsibility.

Free speech doesn’t guarantee space on social media platforms, which are cracking down on pages not meeting its standards.

This effect from fake news complaints means content can be removed for reasons such as containing false information.

This is going to be more important as we edge closer to a vaccine, which could become available this winter.

Battling misinformation has become a whack-a-mole game. The falsehoods are packaged to look and sound real and factual.

About 20% of Americans think some of these conspiracies may have a kernel of truth, and 5% say those are absolutely true, according to a Pew Research Center report.

As the pandemic morphed into a cultural war over masks, physical distancing and re-opening, bad actors seized on the arguments about freedoms and rights.

In this background, universities and drug companies have been searching for a vaccine with the help of nearly $6 billion in federal aid.

The National Institutes of Health announced a vaccine from Massachusetts-based Moderna entered the third phase of testing. Several other companies, including Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer, say they are at late-stage trials as well.

But will the conspiracies and anti-vaxx movements dampen the effort to eradicate COVID-19?

Surveys vary.

On the low end, 49% of Americans say they will get a COVID-19 vaccine while 20% say they will not. Others aren’t sure, according to an Associated Press/NORC Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Chicago.

Another survey was more promising with 71% of U.S. adults saying they would definitely or probably get the vaccine, according to an ABC/Washington Post poll in early June. But it found more adults not likely to take it.

If skeptics are going to be convinced, more information and education is needed.

Background checks of individuals and money trails are good tests for accuracy.

If the funding leads to a dark-money PAC or connects to fringe groups, good possibility it’s sketchy. Money coming from drug companies or governments may not be liked, but at least it can be tracked and open.

Anti-vaxxers are gaining energy through social media, as shown in a study touted as a “first-of-its-kind analysis” of more than 1,300 Facebook pages, according to a report published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Pages identifying as pro-vaccine had more followers, but the anti-vaxxer pages are “more numerous, faster growing and increasingly more connected to undecided pages,” the study finds. The anti-vaxx pages mobilize more locally and address a variety of health concerns to attract new followers.

People are going to have genuine concerns about a new COVID-19 vaccine, most notably how well it will work and any possible side effects. They want good information from experts, but need help finding it.

Find known reputable sources like the NIH or U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Examine news stories for attributions to varied sources and documents, preferably linked.

For every unverified link or unsubstantiated meme, post a good one. It’s going to take everyone to be understanding and vigilant.

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Ginnie Graham 918-581-8376


Twitter: @GinnieGraham