COVID-19 Vaccine Approval Close As Distrust, Misinformation Grow Online In U.S. : Consider This from NPR The Food and Drug Administration could vote as soon as Thursday to approve a COVID-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer for emergency use authorization in the United States.

Speaking to NPR this week, FDA head Dr. Stephen Hahn reiterated the government's commitment to vaccine safety. But public opinion polls suggest many Americans are still skeptical of COVID-19 vaccines, and misinformation about them has been spreading online.

Renee DiResta of the Stanford Internet Observatory tells NPR why misinformation often takes hold where people are not necessarily looking for it.

NPR's Adrian Florido reports public health experts are worried that Latinos and African Americans — communities that are disproportionately affected by COVID-19 — may be less likely to get vaccinated.

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Vaccine Approval Looks Imminent, But Distrust, Misinformation Have Experts Worried

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It could finally happen on Thursday. That's when an FDA advisory committee will meet and vote on whether to grant emergency use authorization, an EUA, for U.S. distribution of a coronavirus vaccine developed by Pfizer.


STEPHEN HAHN: We're expecting a good discussion there of the data. And then we believe shortly after that meeting, we'll be able to make a decision.

CORNISH: Dr. Stephen Hahn is head of the FDA. He spoke to NPR earlier this week after his agency put out a statement about the Pfizer vaccine, which was recently approved and began distribution in the U.K. When it comes to that vaccine, the FDA said that there are, quote, "no specific safety concerns identified that would preclude issuance of an EUA."


HAHN: And the conclusions that you just read are formed by our career scientists who look very detailed - in a detailed way at the safety but also the efficacy of the vaccine. And so that is a very, very important part of our promise to the American people that we won't cut corners in how we assess the safety and effectiveness of a vaccine.

CORNISH: Whether enough Americans are hearing that promise is another question. Public polling has revealed as many as 40% of Americans are expressing reluctance to get a coronavirus vaccine. And misinformation on the topic is rampant online.

IMRAN AHMED: It's a really, really, really powerful parallel pandemic to the real pandemic.

CORNISH: Imran Ahmed studies misinformation on the Internet. He's CEO of the nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate. And that group found people who rely on social media for information about the pandemic are less likely to say they would get a coronavirus vaccine. And the 150 largest anti-vaccination accounts on social media have gained 8 million followers since January. In essence, Ahmed says, the coronavirus and misinformation are twin pandemics, amplifying each other.

AHMED: One being biological, one being social, working in concert to really undermine our capacity to contain COVID.

CORNISH: CONSIDER THIS - experts say at least 75% of people need to be vaccinated in order to get the virus under control. But there's a growing amount of misinformation and distrust in the way of that goal. From NPR, I'm Audie Cornish. It's Wednesday, December 9.

It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. Back in January, the world was barely talking about a mysterious virus that had recently emerged in central China. But at the University of Washington, researcher Kolina Koltai had already heard about it in anti-vaccination groups on Facebook.

KOLINA KOLTAI: The conversation about it was like, hey, here's this mysterious illness, or here's something that seems to be spreading in China. So, you know, some of the people in these communities are actually well aware what's happening in other countries in relationship to vaccines.

CORNISH: Koltai, who spoke to NPR's tech correspondent Shannon Bond, has studied the growing anti-vaccination movement on Facebook for years.

KOLTAI: There's been a long outstanding concern that an epidemic or, in this case, a pandemic is going to potentially cause another vaccine to be created to potentially be, like, forced onto everyone. And so...

CORNISH: Ideas like that used to be confined to specific groups - groups dedicated to vaccines, alternative health and parenting. But this year, Koltai says the pandemic has created opportunities for misinformation to become mainstream.

KOLTAI: There's so much we don't know, so much uncertainty. And uncertainty makes us all so prone to misinformation to try to, like, quell that feeling.

CORNISH: In response to the growing appetite for misinformation on its platform, last week, Facebook announced it would remove debunked information about the coronavirus vaccine that would, quote, lead to "imminent physical harm."


CLAIRE WARDLE: Yes, there are false claims that they're taking down, but there's a lot of people who are just asking questions. So in many ways, you'd be very hard-pressed to say that false rumor is going to lead to imminent harm.

CORNISH: Claire Wardle is the co-founder and U.S. director of First Draft, a nonprofit focused on research to address misinformation. She told NPR there's been a noticeable uptick just in the last few months of misinformation about a coronavirus vaccine.


WARDLE: Some of it is to make money. People are trying to drive clicks to their websites where they're selling health supplements. So there's those kind of people. There are people who are just trying to crave connections with a community. People's lives have been turned upside down this year. They're looking for explanations. And then some people are just doing this to cause trouble, to see what they can get away with.

CORNISH: But no matter the motivation, Wardle says a lot of vaccine misinformation that winds up on Facebook doesn't meet the platform's imminent physical harm standard.


WARDLE: And what we're missing is the daily drip, drip, drip, drip, drip of low-level vaccine misinformation, none of which would break Facebook's barrier. But we don't know what this looks like if, over a couple of years, you see this kind of content that's questioning the government, is questioning the CDC, is questioning Dr. Fauci. And we have almost no research that allows us to understand that longitudinal impact of misinformation.


CORNISH: One thing experts who study vaccine misinformation do understand is that it often takes hold where people may not be looking for it. Renee DiResta is one of those experts. She directs the Stanford Internet Observatory. She spoke to NPR's Robin Young about where vaccine misinformation often appears on social media and why it's so hard to control.


RENEE DIRESTA: A page may not have a primary focus on what some would consider to be a core anti-vaccine belief, but they're concerned about another issue that's adjacent or related. So you come for the organic food, the baby wearing. And then in the course of that, you are also all of a sudden becoming the recipient of constant pushes of messages related *

DIRESTA: * to this other thing that you may not necessarily have joined for.

ROBIN YOUNG: Well, and this is a good place to mention we're talking about people from all across the political spectrum - a lot of people who are on the left looking for an organic lifestyle, a healthy lifestyle. So this is both sides.

DIRESTA: Yeah. So there are seven or eight distinct threads of anti-vaccine messaging. So there's the health component, the idea that there are toxins in vaccines. There is the old conspiracy - and it's been debunked over and over and over again, but it persists - that vaccines cause autism. There are narratives related to religion - the idea that if God made you perfect, why would you need a vaccine? More narratives that appeal to the right tend towards the application of the vaccine, the idea that the government telling you to do something is tyranny.

YOUNG: Yeah, and also knowing what you're looking at. There are also very official-looking websites by groups with names like the Children's Ethical Safety Research Institute pushing false vaccine information. This reminds me a little bit of what we've heard that QAnon does - pull people in by pushing this completely false theory that Democrats in particular are running child sex trafficking organizations - completely, completely not true. But there are people who - concerned about child sex trafficking get pulled into that. Is it a little bit like that?

DIRESTA: There's a lot. Right now, you know, there's a conspiracy that financial motivation is what's driving the vaccine process, that this is going to turn people into antennas for 5G. There's no mechanism by which that could happen. But at the same time, this is still a narrative that begins to gain traction among the conspiratorial anti-5G community. And so you see a lot of these cross-pollination narratives taking shape.

YOUNG: So meantime, people are being targeted with misinformation on Facebook and Twitter. But studies show that it would take 75% of the population getting vaccinated to control the outbreak. Do you worry that we might not get there?

DIRESTA: I think the challenge has been that it's growing. It's difficult to get an accurate sense of how many people fully believe all of the things that are said in these groups and on these pages. Unfortunately, a lot of the rhetoric is trending towards this why should I have to narrative. And I think that we need to make sure that anybody who's communicating about why these vaccines matter is explaining the value to all of society, not just to the individual, and how any restoration of, you know, our old way of living is something that we bear collective responsibility for.


CORNISH: Renee DiResta is the technical research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory. She spoke to Robin Young on Here & Now. That show's a co-production of NPR and member station WBUR in Boston.


CORNISH: Public health experts are worried that some people who are skeptical of a coronavirus vaccine are the people who need it the most, including Latinos and African Americans, who make up a disproportionate number of people hospitalized or killed by COVID-19. But there are efforts to fight vaccine skepticism within those communities. Here's correspondent Adrian Florido, who reports on race and identity for NPR.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Marie Reyes (ph) does not intend to get vaccinated - at least not right away.

MARIE REYES: I definitely will be one of the people that won't take it, you know, in the beginning.

FLORIDO: Reyes says she is not generally a vaccine skeptic.

REYES: But this one, since it's new, I am not comfortable of getting it.

FLORIDO: Surveys show that kind of skepticism about the COVID vaccine is widespread. Nearly 40% of Latinos told Pew researchers they would probably or definitely not get the vaccine. More than half of Black respondents said the same. White people have also expressed hesitancy. But the reluctance among African Americans and Latinos is especially worrying because their rates of infection are so much higher.

KEITH NORRIS: It's a major concern.

FLORIDO: Dr. Keith Norris is among an army of people ramping up efforts to ensure Latinos, African Americans and other people of color trust the vaccine. He's hearing a wide range of concerns, many stemming from a long history of racism in medical research.

NORRIS: Concern about being a guinea pig, concerns about pharma and the federal government. And then there's lots of social media messaging downplaying the importance of coronavirus.

FLORIDO: Norris works for UCLA and is leading a California effort funded by the National Institutes of Health to build vaccine trust. The strategy is to get clear, concise information to Black and brown communities with help from so-called trusted messengers, people with existing relationships in communities with high COVID risk - people like Tony Wayford (ph), a longtime Los Angeles-based HIV educator. In May, he lost five close family members to COVID. He's talked about that a lot as he's encouraged Black friends and neighbors to volunteer for vaccine trials and now to take the vaccine.

TONY WAYFORD: It's hard to say, get in this clinical trial and these white people going to help you, when these the same white people that have been kicking your ass all week, you know what I mean?

FLORIDO: He says he acknowledges people's skepticism and meets them where they are.

WAYFORD: I tell people all the time - I say, what are you on? They say, well, I'm on high blood pressure medicine. I'm taking something for my cholesterol. I say, you know, before you've taken that pill, it was in a clinical trial. You know it just didn't pop up out of thin air. Then they go, really? Yeah, it was a clinical trial first.

FLORIDO: UCLA's Keith Norris says this outreach will take many forms - in person, on the airwaves and in virtual town halls. He says researchers will track what messages about the vaccine people respond to to see...

NORRIS: If there are certain areas that tend to have a greater impact moving people from being reticent to being willing.

FLORIDO: Ana Melgoza is with San Ysidro Health, a San Diego clinic that serves a large Mexican and Mexican American population, where fears about vaccine safety are compounded by language issues and concerns about immigration status. The clinic has trained community outreach workers to answer questions about the vaccine.

ANA MELGOZA: The reason why this is working is because people are not relying on a government entity for this information, especially due to the last four years. People would rather hear from someone that they already have a relationship with.

FLORIDO: She expects the vaccine to gain acceptance over time. But she also says many of the clinic's patients are already eager for the vaccine because they've spent months risking themselves in essential jobs and have lost friends and family.

MELGOZA: They don't want to see anyone else, any other loved one, have to go through that.

FLORIDO: For these people, the vaccine...

MELGOZA: Means being able to continue to provide for their families, for their loved ones, and to be there for them in the long run.

FLORIDO: She says that's the message she intends to keep driving home.

CORNISH: That's NPR national correspondent Adrian Florido.

It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Audie Cornish.

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