This is not the first instance in which inadequate information or improper understanding of a scientific process as complex as vaccine development has gained traction on mainstream as well as social media(REUTERS)
Over the weekend, Haryana’s health minister Anil Vij announced that he tested positive for the coronavirus disease (Covid-19), leading many to draw connections with his participation in the trials of one of the vaccine candidates. The immediate media coverage and the social media conversations that followed conflated Mr Vij’s diagnosis with the trial in a way that suggested that the inoculation of Covaxin from Bharat Biotech may be ineffective. In reality, it is not known whether the minister was given a placebo or the actual inoculation. Even if he did get a shot of Covaxin, it is not meant to be protective until he gets at least two doses (he got only one) and his immunity has had 14 days after that to build the necessary protection against Covid-19.
This is not the first instance in which inadequate information or improper understanding of a scientific process as complex as vaccine development has gained traction on mainstream as well as social media. Last week, cricketer Harbhajan Singh seemingly implied that recovery from natural infection appeared to offer more protection than vaccines, citing efficacy numbers that, in reality, hold no equivalence with disease recovery rates. A little earlier, at the end of November, the coverage of the adverse effect in a volunteer participating in the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine trial in Chennai amplified allegations that were later disproved.
Helped by misleading semantics and a lack of awareness, such conversations around vaccines are prone to misinformation and could erode trust. This problem has been particularly pronounced in the West — recent polls showed only 60% of Americans are willing to take a vaccine — although it has not taken hold in a country like India, where most people have seen disease more closely. The enormous gains from vaccine campaigns like that of polio are still largely fresh in everyone’s minds. But this does not mean Indians are any less susceptible to misinformation on an issue where a difference between a headline and nuance could often be the line dividing fact and myth. Recent studies have shown that when it is amplified by sources that typically have high trust — like news organisations and celebrities — the spread of misinformation is more damaging and harder to mitigate. In these times, such groups must prioritise nuance. We must listen to experts first, before not just voicing but also forming our own opinions.