In July 2020, months before a Covid-19 vaccine would be approved for use in the United States, The New York Times ran an alarming headline on the front page of its Sunday paper: “Rising Mistrust of ‘Warp Speed’ Vaccine May Prolong Pandemic.” The story reported that large portions of the public did not trust the White House’s vaccine development initiative, Operation Warp Speed, and felt hesitant to get a shot whenever it became available.
Since then, researchers have further tested and vetted vaccine candidates. As they’ve identified multiple shots that are safe and highly effective against the coronavirus, public trust in the vaccine has risen.
But concern about vaccine hesitancy has persisted. And it has peaked again recently, as vaccine supply swells in the U.S. On Tuesday, The Wall Street Journal reported that the Biden administration has partnered with Nascar and other major sports leagues for a national vaccine messaging campaign. (The administration is also working with the Christian Broadcasting Network and outlaw country idol Willie Nelson.) Meanwhile, some people continue to sound alarms about vaccine resistance. “America Is Now in the Hands of the Vaccine-Hesitant” read a headline this week in The Atlantic.
It’s not clear that the situation is so dire. While there seems to be widespread agreement among public health experts that vaccine hesitancy could leave some people vulnerable to the virus, there’s less evidence that vaccine resistance will have a profound effect on the future of the pandemic in the U.S.
In part, that’s because it’s unclear whether achieving herd immunity — in which enough people become immune to a virus that transmission drops close to zero — is a realistic goal. Vaccine hesitancy is just one of many obstacles to achieving full population immunity. Experts say that other issues, including new virus variants, may make that goal difficult to reach, even as vaccination dramatically curbs the virus’ worst effects.
And, despite lingering fears about hesitancy, many Americans do seem eager to get immunized. Hesitancy does not always mean outright rejection, and surveys continue to suggest that large — and growing — portions of the U.S. population are willing to get a shot. Surveys can be wrong, of course, but federal government vaccination data also indicates strong demand. Already, more than 70 percent of people in the vulnerable over-65 demographic, who account for the large majority of deaths from Covid-19, have received at least one dose of a vaccine. That’s despite ongoing issues with delivering shots to homebound seniors, and despite data suggesting that many older people have struggled to secure vaccination appointments.
In early March, Drew Altman — who runs the Kaiser Family Foundation, which collects and publishes in-depth data on Covid-19 vaccine uptake — argued that accessibility, rather than hesitancy, was the main obstacle to mass vaccination. Many people wanted a shot, he wrote, but simply couldn’t get appointments or access vaccine sites. In an email to Undark this week, Altman wrote that vaccine hesitancy is “definitely a problem.” But he reiterated that he sees growing buy-in for vaccination, adding “there is good reason to believe that many on the fence will get vaccinated as they see others do it without adverse consequences.”
For now, as vaccination increases, many experts are optimistic that better conditions are coming soon. Justified or not, that optimism is reflected in a line Willie Nelson sings at the end of his new vaccine commercial: “I’ll be seeing you soon.”
Also in the News:
• AstraZeneca pushed back on criticism from U.S. health officials Wednesday night, stating that a preliminary analysis showed its vaccine was 76 percent effective at preventing symptomatic Covid-19. The new results — just a few percentage points below the efficacy rate the pharmaceutical company touted on Monday — come in response to concerns from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) that AstraZeneca “may have included outdated information” from its U.S. vaccine trial in its initial announcement. “The data and safety monitoring board were concerned that the data that went into the press release by AZ was not the most accurate and up-to-date data,” Anthony Fauci, NIAID’s head, told STAT Tuesday morning. AstraZeneca has said the results it published Monday were based on data up to mid-February and the new, fuller analysis confirms its efficacy. Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, told STAT that the results were “better than expected” and added that he is “relieved since the world needs the vaccine badly.” The AstraZeneca vaccine is already in wide use in Asia and Europe — though it has faced a troubled rollout in the latter. While it is not yet available in the U.S., the country has pledged to share some of its allotted AstraZeneca doses with Mexico and Canada. (STAT)
• Two years ago, the Event Horizon Telescope, an international research collaboration, set the astronomy world abuzz with the release of the first-ever image of a black hole. Combined from observations captured simultaneously by 11 radio telescopes around the world, the image showed Messier 87, a supermassive black hole 55 million light-years away, as a silhouette framed by a halo of light. Now, after months of reanalyzing that original data, the team has released an even more detailed snapshot of Messier, in which thin wisps of light can be seen spiraling across the surrounding halo, a visual that prompted Forbes contributor Ethan Siegel to write: “Black holes are crullers, not donuts.” Scientists say those spiraling wisps of light are evidence of a strong, twisting magnetic field that could help explain how supermassive black holes whip up jets of matter and energy that extend thousands of light years into the cosmos. Astrophysicists like Columbia University’s Janna Levin say the new image is “thrilling,” but the Event Horizon Telescope team is already setting its sights on even bigger feats: It is reportedly laying the groundwork for a follow-up effort that will produce movies of the black hole in action. (Scientific American)
• The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, following a Biden administration directive on scientific integrity, detailed plans this week to review Trump-era environmental regulations for signs of political interference in the science that underlies the rules. “When politics drives science rather than science informing policy, we are more likely to make policy choices that sacrifice the health of the most vulnerable among us,” EPA administrator Michael Regan wrote in an email to staff announcing the review. Critics and former EPA staffers have described overt efforts by Trump administration appointees to roll back environmental protections, and charged appointees with dismissing or suppressing inconvenient scientific evidence on everything from pesticide dangers to climate change. In an interview with The New York Times, an unnamed EPA insider said that the review was expected to examine around 90 regulatory decisions. “Manipulating, suppressing, or otherwise impeding science has real-world consequences for human health and the environment,” Regan wrote in his email. (The New York Times)
• The Guardian has viewed a secret 300-page document outlining guidelines for Facebook moderators, revealing the rules the social media giant uses when deciding how to regulate content posted on its site. Some of those newly disclosed regulations have drawn scrutiny and alarm, including a policy that allows for users to call for the death of public figures, and guidelines that give some leeway to users who speak favorably of perpetrators of mass murder. Facebook has struggled for years to control content on its various platforms, which have 2.6 billion daily users. Critics have charged that Facebook’s flagship platform fuels the spread of misinformation. In 2018, reports detailed how military leaders in Myanmar had used the site for years to incite ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya minority group. The new leak also offers insight into Facebook’s strategy for operating within repressive regimes. According to a Facebook spokesperson: “We recognize that in conflict zones some violent non-state actors provide key services and negotiate with governments — so we enable praise around those non-violent activities but do not allow praise for violence by these groups.” (The Guardian)
• And finally: On Tuesday, NASA announced that the first flight of the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter will take place sometime in April. If successful, Ingenuity — a small proof-of-technology robotic helicopter — will be the first such device to take flight on a planet other than Earth. The solar-powered helicopter arrived on Mars on Feb. 18 with the Perseverance rover, which has since been working to prepare Ingenuity for its mission. The Ingenuity team has five flights planned for the semi-autonomous helicopter over a one-month period. Flying on Mars will be a different experience than on Earth, as the Red Planet has less gravity, a thinner atmosphere, less solar energy, and icy nights that can drop to minus 130 Fahrenheit — all of which will pose challenges to Ingenuity. But the craft is taking a piece of flight history with it: A postage-stamp-sized piece of muslin from the Wright Brother’s first successful airplane, nicknamed the Flyer, is attached to a cable on the helicopter’s solar panel. In reference to the Flyer’s history, a statement from NASA noted: “While Ingenuity will attempt the first powered, controlled flight on another planet, the first powered, controlled flight on Earth took place Dec. 17, 1903.” (Space.com)
“Also in the News” items are compiled and written by Undark staff. Deborah Blum, Brooke Borel, Lucas Haugen, Jane Roberts, and Ashley Smart contributed to this roundup.