COVID-19 vaccine: Counteract the anti-vaccine, anti-science aggression

Another View: We may fail to vaccinate our way out of this epidemic by this summer and soon face the specter of emerging variants of concern.

Dr. Peter Hotez | Opinion contributor | 8:00 am EDT June 2, 2021

You’re reading Another View, one of two perspectives in Today’s Debate.

For Our View, read If cash change minds, it pays to save lives.

Our best hope of slowing or even halting COVID-19 virus transmission is through vaccination. Based on our earlier studies, we will need about three-quarters of the U.S. population vaccinated to achieve this goal. But with more transmissible variants, we may need to vaccinate just about all American adults and adolescents. 

In regards to current vaccination rates, we are making good progress on the East and West Coasts, but in the Southern United States and in Idaho and Wyoming, vaccine coverage remains low. 

For instance, the vaccination rates in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi are about half that of Vermont and Massachusetts. Idaho and Wyoming are only slightly better than these Southern states. 

The North-South or Blue-Red gap appears to be increasing over time. Therefore, the major vaccination barrier appears to be significant rates of refusal among conservatives living in deep red states. 

So how do we correct this? 

It is not at all clear that incentivizing groups through expensive prizes and gifts can overcome the fact that many living in the South and elsewhere now tie their political allegiance to vaccine defiance. While token prizes such as a doughnut or a pizza slice are fun and harmless, it’s unlikely that more elaborate material incentives will provide significant rates of return in terms of vaccine coverage. Moreover, there is a potential downside, namely the awful optics of needing to bribe Americans to vaccinate as the rest of the world desperately seeks vaccine doses. 

Instead, we need to reach out to conservative communities and news networks (or their leaders) and ask for their help and advice. In parallel, we may need a more aggressive approach to countering the waves of disinformation coming from well-funded anti-vaccine groups. They include those identified by the Center for Countering Digital Hate, anti-science and anti-vaccine organizations with tens of millions of followers on social media. 

We must also halt Russian government efforts to destabilize America through its anti-vaccine communications across multiple media platforms. 

Until as a nation we resolve to counteract the anti-science aggression, we may fail to vaccinate our way out of this epidemic by this summer and soon face the specter of emerging variants of concern.   

Peter Hotez, MD and Ph.D., is Professor of Pediatrics and Molecular Virology and Microbiology, and Dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. His latest book is "Preventing the Next Pandemic: Vaccine Diplomacy in a Time of Anti-Science" (Johns Hopkins University Press).