A watched pot never boils. This age-old refrain would go in one ear and out the other as I waited by my grandma’s side in the kitchen while she made coffee, chicken soup or devilled eggs. But she was right, it seemed that the minute I looked away from the stove for was the minute the pot started bubbling. The race for a COVID-19 vaccine feels a little like that to me now.
The eyes of the world are glued on the pot that is the pharmaceutical and biotech industry and the public are watching with more interest than ever before the scientists and researchers who are working at unprecedented pace in the race to find a vaccine. Progress is being made with more than 140 vaccine candidates being explored in early testing and nine already progressed to Phase 3 large-scale clinical trials, however for those of us working in the health sector, this excitement is tempered as we know numerous hurdles remain before a safe and effective vaccine is available for distribution.
But while the world is eagerly waiting on the discovery of a vaccine, new Edelman research indicates there are multiple challenges facing us even when we have a successful vaccine.
So what else stands in our way?
Vaccine hesitancy is a major threat to global health security. Health and science experts agree that rapid, equitable allocation of doses of a vaccine to the most at-risk persons in all countries is the best way to end the acute stage of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Findings from our latest Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report: Workplace Trust and the Coronavirus Report has revealed that while many people (68%) around the world fear a second wave of the virus, worryingly 1 in 3 (35%) people globally said they wouldn’t or weren’t sure if they would take a government approved, no-cost vaccine if available. When dealing with infectious diseases like COVID-19, this will have a devastating impact on our ability to combat it.
We must act now to prevent this public trust from eroding further.
We found in previous special reports of the Trust Barometer conducted this year that people need to hear information multiple times and from multiple sources to believe it is true. This is especially challenging when thinking about our 24-7 news cycle and the huge amount of new information about both the disease itself, possible interventions and the race to find a vaccine. Information evolves quickly and doesn’t lend itself to the need for a consistent, coordinated delivery essential to build public trust.
Whose responsibility is it to build Trust?
Addressing this info-demic falls to all four of the institutions we have studied for the past 20 years – government, business, NGOs and media –each playing a part in building and maintaining public trust. But for healthcare businesses, this is a real opportunity.
It is encouraging to see companies stepping up to meet this challenge head on. On Tuesday 8th September, in an unprecedented move, nine drug companies came together to pledge that they will not submit vaccine candidates for FDA review until their safety and efficacy has been shown in large phase III clinical trials. The declaration aims to bolster public confidence amid the rush to make a COVID-19 vaccine widely available and growing concerns that political pressure rather than scientific rigour is fuelling the vaccine race.
The CEOs of AstraZeneca, Moderna, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, GlaxoSmithKline, Merck, Novavax, BioNTech and Sanofi are among those who signed the pledge which came on the heels of recent official statements from the US government that a vaccine could be available as early as October. This type of historic partnered communication is the swift, transparent action that needs to be taken, repeated and amplified to help us better address vaccine hesitancy.
Our Trust Barometer Special Report also showed that women and lower income households report greater levels of hesitancy. Better understanding what is driving this Trust gap means we can tackle it head on and there is a clear opportunity for companies and institutions and to do more to engage these audiences in COVID-19 related dialogue. There was also good news for beleaguered national health authorities like the National Institute for Health Protection (NIHP), formerly Public Health England, and Health and Care Secretary Matt Hancock with results showing national health authorities are the third most trusted sources of information, above global orgs like the World Health Organisation (WHO), with major news organisations coming first followed by national government sources.
It is great to see global health organisations building trust by being on the forefront of these discussions. For example, COVAX the vaccines pillar of the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator, co-led by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), and the WHO and was set up to ensure COVID-19 vaccines will be available worldwide to both higher-income and lower-income countries.
COVAX aims to deliver two billion doses of safe, effective vaccines that have passed regulatory approval and/or WHO prequalification by the end of 2021. These vaccines will be offered equally to all participating countries, proportional to their populations, initially prioritising healthcare workers then expanding to cover vulnerable groups, such as the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions. Further doses will then be made available based on country need, vulnerability and virus threat. Said best by Dr Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi and leading epidemiologist of the COVID-19 vaccine race, “no one wins unless everyone wins”.
The time is now.
It is clear that there has never been a more crucial time for those of us working in healthcare communications to step up to deliver more clear, timely and accurate storytelling than ever before and while we face major challenges, these come with equally exciting opportunities to drive meaningful change that will have a direct impact on the health of ourselves, our communities and the world.