Conspiracy theories on Covid-19 vaccine can be as deadly as virus itself
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The announcement by Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize on Wednesday night in a webinar that the first tranche of the vaccine doses will arrive in South Africa on 1 February, was long-awaited and welcomed by South Africans.
With phase 1 of the rollout plan, government will initially prioritise healthcare workers on the frontline of the fight against the coronavirus and, as more vaccine doses become available, embark on full vaccination campaigns aimed at other high risk groups and ultimately, the general public.
President Cyril Ramaphosa has said the vaccine rollout will be the most ambitious programme in our country’s history. So, the last thing the world needs at the moment is fake news peddlers trying to convince people they shouldn’t get the vaccine. This is particularly true as we face an infodemic of misinformation and fake news packaged as truth and evidence based. The conspiracy theories and exaggerated safety concerns are varied and almost all are without basis.
An international survey by Ipsos conducted on over 18 000 participants on behalf of the World Economic Forum (WEF) indicated only around 73% of the participants across 15 countries would be willing to get Covid-19 vaccines. In South Africa, around 64% of participants were willing to get the vaccine.
A recent survey by fintech company, CompariSure, reported 52% of South Africans will not take the Covid-19 vaccines. To date, a number of other similar surveys have been conducted. For most surveys, the main reasons raised against Covid-19 vaccines include safety, particularly the side effects; the speed of testing in humans; doubt on efficacy; risk of Covid-19 disease being too low; religious considerations; the vaccine cost; fear of needles; conspiracy theories and widespread misinformation.
The common conspiracy theories include that Bill Gates is trying to control the world by implanting microchips in the Covid-19 vaccine; the vaccine will be used to kill Africans as part of an age-old population control plan; big pharmaceutical companies created the virus to profit billions from supplying the vaccine; Covid-19 comes from 5G towers; and so on.
These, and other fears, have dominated social media conversations in South Africa and across the world for the past few months as Covid-19 vaccines were being tested. The concerns have intensified in the past few weeks now that the vaccines are being rolled out.
As South Africa finds itself in the midst of a deadly, second Covid-19 surge, and the first batch of vaccines is on its way to our country, it is alarming that some of these conspiracies and misinformation originate from high profile individuals. Some leaders have suggested any vaccine not developed in Africa should be rejected and Africans should rely on alternatives such as indigenous herbs.
While indigenous herbs have many healing qualities and are an important part of traditional medicine and health care on the continent, encouraging people to discard the vaccine in favour of traditional medicine alone is lethal information. Neither eucalyptus-infused steam nor extreme hot summer conditions will kill the virus.
The spectacular claim is that Covid-19 comes from 5G towers. Deadly infectious diseases like Spanish Flu were transmitted decades ago before the advent of 3rd, 4th or 5th generation technologies. Lightbulbs emit a higher frequency than 5G towers. Destroying 5G towers will not end the pandemic.
The most dangerous claim is that Covid-19 and the vaccine are part of an evil plan to reduce Africa’s population so that Western countries can fully control the continent’s natural resources. This is mind boggling. How exactly would the West seek to control Africa’s population and resources by creating a virus and vaccine that decimates its own people?
The number of deaths from Covid-19 infections both in the West and Africa attest to the fact that this virus is lethal regardless of who is infected.
Epidemic diseases do not respect borders and affect us all. This highly contagious virus is democratic: infecting and affecting anyone regardless of age, gender or ethnicity. Some of the critical differentiating factors contributing to excess morbidity and mortality in some groups are issues related to inequalities in healthcare access, individuals with underlying co-morbidities and old age.
Equally important, vaccines haven’t been developed to control the general population with microchip tracking or to alter the DNA of recipients. They are essential public health tools to control the pandemic globally and South Africa is no exception.
Vaccines have saved millions of lives, prevented and sometimes successfully eliminated diseases like measles. It is through vaccination that the world is now free of smallpox and on the verge of eradicating polio. Babies are vaccinated daily in South Africa, without much resistance from parents or guardians.
The other fear dominating social media surrounds the safety of vaccines. For Covid-19 vaccines, the fears seem to originate from the speed with which these vaccines have been developed and tested. At face value, this is a genuine concern. For the first time ever, a vaccine has been developed, tested and authorised (albeit under emergence use) for use in humans in less than 12 months.
It is worth noting that any pharmaceutical product will result in some form of side effects. For vaccines, the majority of recipients do not experience side effects. When side effects do occur, the bulk are mild and self-limiting. Health authorities are obliged to properly record and fully investigate all side effects to understand whether they are associated with the vaccines or purely coincidental.
The same process is followed during clinical trials where safety data is made available to the vaccine clinical trial oversight committees such as Data Safety Monitoring Board, Institutional Ethics committees and the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA).
At the end of the clinical trial, the manufacturer is required to disclose all available data on vaccine safety to regulatory authorities such as SAHPRA, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), UK Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) and European Medicines Agency (EMA) for the vaccine to obtain either full licensure or emergency authorisation for human use.
Post licensure and during mass rollout of any new vaccine, safety monitoring, especially of rare side effects, continues to be high on the pharmacovigilance agenda. The post access safety monitoring is critical as mass vaccination campaigns can result in detection of extremely rare side effects or adverse events following immunisation (AEFI).
Finally, all AEFI’s are notifiable conditions and should be reported as soon as possible to health and regulatory authorities. This is particularly true of the Covid-19 vaccines, as it has been of childhood vaccines across South Africa and the world for decades now.
We should not forget that the Covid-19 vaccines were developed in record time precisely to end the pandemic and allow the global economy to return to normal. Thanks to the latest technologies that enabled full genomic analysis of the novel SARS-CoV2 within days after discovery.
Furthermore, novel platform technologies employed to rapidly develop mRNA (e.g. Pfizer and Moderna) or viral vectored (e.g. AstraZeneca, Johnson and Johnson, and Sputnik) vaccines are commendable. These platforms enable the world to respond quickly to epidemic threats.
Another factor that accelerated vaccine development was the swift and efficient recruitment of patients for clinical trials amid the pandemic. Indeed, public health emergencies demand a response programme that is swift, effective and nimble.
Historically, vaccine development has taken a long time and traditional systems to bring new vaccines to the market were tedious and cumbersome. With the availability of newer technologies, it is possible to fast-track the research and development process and scale up manufacturing of new vaccines in record time.
It is therefore unclear why there is such an orchestrated attack on Covid-19 vaccines. Is it individuals trying to claim relevance, or pure ignorance, or just lack of correct information?
Without overriding the key principles of respect for dignity, human rights and freedom of persons, it is high time that individuals spreading dangerous misinformation and fake news should weigh the pros and cons of their conduct. No doubt that such conduct erodes vaccine confidence and makes vaccine acceptance a tall order. Science - not fake news and misinformation - should guide the country’s Covid-19 response.
So far, that has stood us in good stead and the country should continue on that path. Deviating from it could cost thousands of lives. The official death toll due to Covid-19 is sadly fast approaching the 50 000 mark and will continue to rise until vaccine coverage is at a level high enough to interrupt widespread community transmission of the virus.
As thousands are infected daily, spreading conspiracy theories about Covid-19 vaccines is not an appropriate intervention and can be as deadly as the virus itself.
It remains our obligation as members of the scientific community to engage those with different views, address their concerns, and actively promote vaccine acceptability and uptake through education and communication campaigns.
*Dr Mphahlele writes in his professional capacity as a medical virologist.