Covid-19 vaccine hesitancy: Beliefs about origins of virus play a big role

  • Vaccine experts around the world are concerned about the high levels of vaccine hesitancy in populations
  • Several studies indicate an array of reasons why many people are sceptical about a Covid-19 vaccine
  • A recent study revealed the belief that the virus is man-made is one of the key reasons behind this

Creating safe and effective Covid-19 vaccines and making them available worldwide in 2021 is only half the battle. Even if these vaccines become available, they will only work to protect the population if enough people are immunised. The other half of the battle is going to be to get the majority of the global population to accept these vaccines.

Findings from a study by UCL and Dokuz Eylul University in Turkey show that more than a third of people (34%) in Turkey and a sixth of people (17%) in the UK are "hesitant" about a Covid-19 vaccine.

The findings are based on the responses of over 5 000 participants in Turkey and the UK about their willingness to be vaccinated against Covid-19, and included discussions around their beliefs about the origin of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19 disease.

The study was published in the journal Psychological Medicine.

'The omission bias'

The researchers examined multiple factors linked to the acceptance of a Covid-19 vaccine, with one of the key factors in the level of vaccine acceptance being the study participants' beliefs about the origin of the virus.

Odds of vaccine acceptance were found to be 26% higher in Turkey, and 63% higher in the UK, if a participant believed in the natural origin of the virus.

In Turkey, participants who believed that the virus was human-made (artificial), were 54% more likely to be vaccine-hesitant.

"From an evolutionary point of view, natural selection should favour a bias towards making the least costly decision when there is uncertainty,” said lead author, Dr Gul Deniz Salali, an evolutionary anthropologist at UCL.

“This is why when people face a choice between taking a specific action or doing nothing, they sometimes prefer to do nothing. This cognitive bias, called the omission bias, may kick in when people make vaccination decisions."

Another reason for vaccine hesitancy

Other behavioural and demographic factors that influenced vaccination and origin beliefs included the following:

  • Participants who had higher levels of pandemic-related anxieties, such as being more worried about being infected with or passing on the virus, were more likely to accept Covid-19 vaccination. 
  • Compared to women, men in Turkey were more likely to accept a Covid-19 vaccine and believe in the natural origin of the virus.

"Because women are more likely to take healthcare decisions for their children, they may also be more likely to seek out information about vaccines and be exposed to online anti-vaccination content,” explained Salali.

“Moreover, women score higher on disgust sensitivity which is associated with vaccine hesitancy," he added.

Vaccine hesitancy top threat to global health

In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) cited vaccine hesitancy as one of the top 10 threats to global health.

“Vaccine hesitancy – the reluctance or refusal to vaccinate despite the availability of vaccines – threatens to reverse progress made in tackling vaccine-preventable diseases,” the organisation stated.

“Vaccination is one of the most cost-effective ways of avoiding disease – it currently prevents 2 to 3 million deaths a year, and a further 1.5 million could be avoided if global coverage of vaccinations improved.”

Earlier this month, Spotlight reported on the results of a recent Ipsos survey, which revealed that South Africa falls in the group with the least intention to get vaccinated (64%).

Other countries included Russia (54%), France (59%), and Italy, Germany, the US, and Sweden (all at 67%). 

Reasons for this hesitancy included low confidence in public institutions and concerns about safety.

In the case of the UCL and Dokuz Eylul University study, researchers believe that in order to ensure widespread public acceptance as soon as Covid-19 vaccines become available, there should be wider communication of the scientific consensus on the origin of the new coronavirus with the public, as these may help future campaigns targeting Covid-19 vaccine hesitancy.

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