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Assessing Real-Time Vaccine Concerns & Gatekeeping Misinformation

Man looking concerned while receiving vaccination shot

A critical difference between the global response to previous devastating pandemics throughout history, such as the 1918 ‘Spanish’ flu, which claimed 20 to 50 million lives worldwide, or the 14th century’s ‘Black Death,’ with an estimated 50 million casualties, is that we currently possess a fundamental game changer in the war against such mass scourges: vaccine technology.

Historically, such deaths resulted from a collective lack of understanding, sophisticated ​​medical equipment, diagnostics, and antiviral agents.

As we surpass the two-year mark of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic’s outbreak, more than half (63.4%) of the world’s population has received at least one dose of available vaccines, with about 18.11 million doses now administered daily.

In an unprecedented scientific achievement, several pharmaceutical companies rose to the challenge of developing and administering these after just nine months. During the last year, ample data reflects remarkable prevention and decreased hospitalization rates associated with full vaccination.

While some developing countries grapple with limited supply, and vaccine administration can be a multi-hour endeavor, a significant number of people in wealthier nations with vaccine access have resisted.

During a pandemic that has claimed the lives of more than 6 million and counting, it is imperative that pharma, public health officials and entities such as the Organisation Management Service (OMS), and others throughout the healthcare sector utilize real-time data analysis to understand citizens’ questions and concerns about vaccine development. Full visibility into the most common ongoing conversations among the public at large enables the pharmaceutical and healthcare industries to act quickly in response to concerns and misinformation—potentially saving lives.

Detecting Misinformation in an Infodemic

Healthcare workers have been tasked with not only combating a deadly illness, but additionally, responding to what the World Health Organization (WHO) has deemed a “twin crisis”: the coronavirus infodemic. 

Amid an overabundance of information, online and off, this excess of distorted and inaccurate information has been characterized by “deliberate attempts to disseminate wrong information to undermine the public health response and advance alternative agendas of groups or individuals,” according to a recent WHO statement

Not only does misinformation threaten scientific efforts and progress, but it can be deadly, warns the agency. 

In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly 6,000 people globally were hospitalized due to misinformation, and at least 800 may have died because of it, according to recent research from The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (AJTMH).

“Misinformation costs lives,” the WHO statement continues. “Without the appropriate trust and correct information, diagnostic tests go unused, immunization campaigns (or campaigns to promote effective vaccines) will not meet their targets, and the virus will continue to thrive.” 

Detrimental to physical and mental health, the spread of false information also breeds stigmatization, heightens the risk of conflict, amplifies hate speech, and threatens long-term prospects for democracy, human rights, and social cohesion, it reads.


Public Distrust & “Flattening the Infodemic Curve”

History tells us that distrust in times of crisis is deeply rooted in human nature. 

According to the peer-reviewed article “Conspiracy theories as part of history: The role of societal crisis situations” in Memory Studies journal, marked increases in distrust and conspiracy theories have accompanied various societal crisis situations. Information overload, “pandemic fatigue,” and widespread feelings of anxiety and lack of control “stimulate a motivation to make sense of the situation,” it continues.

During the 2002 SARS outbreak in China, a social stigma against Asian people developed out of fear and anxiety about contracting the disease. In 2019, misinformation during the Ebola outbreak in the Republic of Congo was linked to “violence, mistrust, social disturbances, and targeted attacks on healthcare providers,” continues the aforementioned AJTMH article.

In light of the rumors, stigma, and conspiracy theories circulating during the coronavirus pandemic, United Nations (UN) Secretary-General António Guterres has deemed misinformation about COVID-19 the “new enemy.”

Harkening back to early efforts to contain the virus in its beginning months, the WHO passed a resolution in May 2020 challenging the public to “flatten the infodemic curve” in combating misinformation in the digital sphere. Seeking to prevent harmful cyber activities undermining legitimate healthcare responses, the agency encourages the public to employ basic media literacy techniques online, such as assessing the source, examining the evidence, and turning to fact-checkers.

Several social media platforms—a main avenue for COVID-19 misinformation spread—have also implemented policies to monitor, and vet, what’s spread, according to Internal Policy Review journal article “Combating misinformation online: re-imagining social media for policy-making.”

Coupled with enhanced media literacy and social media gatekeeping, public health officials can utilize emerging data technology to further global counter-misinformation strategies.


Combating Misinformation With Real-Time Data

While it is challenging to mitigate such a polarizing infodemic, pharmaceutical organizations can proactively leverage real-time data to analyze trends and locate areas of the population where misinformation is most prevalent, targeting those regions for educational efforts.

For instance, if online conversations regarding one piece of misinformation are more evident in a certain area, vaccine campaigns can refocus their efforts in that region to effectively disprove it. 

This data is ever evolving and rapidly changing, especially as new coronavirus variants emerge, government restrictions are removed, and health and pharmaceutical recommendations shift (such as regarding the need for a booster).

Through interpreting citizens’ questions, complaints, and misconceptions around vaccination—whether about the potential of blood clots, vaccine supply, disproportionately adverse effects on people of color, and more—public health officials can maintain full-visibility understanding into the always-changing vaccine conversation, acting quickly to respond to concerns and potential misinformation.

Rather than waiting months for traditional surveys and other methods, it is crucial pharmaceutical organizations utilize the cutting-edge technology available to understand the prevalence of vaccine concerns and misinformation spread, focusing their efforts accordingly.

By maintaining a pulse on the constant flux of vaccine-related conversations unfolding around the globe—whether across social media or other forums—healthcare officials can be empowered to proactively identify trends as they happen in real time, strategize ways to combat misinformation, and more effectively help bring an end to this and future pandemics. In fact, Citibeats worked with 

Citibeats has worked with the WHO to track COVID-19 misinformation in 30 countries. Our platform utilizes ethical AI technology for social understanding, collecting and analyzing real-time vaccine data from social media comments, forums, blogs, and more. By analyzing evolving citizen feedback in real time, we develop actionable insights to help steer policies and practices months earlier than traditional methods.

Schedule a demo today to discuss how Citibeats can inform your decisions with up-to-date information.