Experimental Covid shots inject anti-vaccine sentiments

As the global hunt for a Covid-19 shot progresses on an unprecedented speed, anti-vaccine sentiments have also gained steam, prompted by theories that fast-tracked programs are profit-driven, loaded with health risks and will eventually lead to enforced immunisation.

In the United States, Robert F Kennedy Junior, a nephew of former US President John F Kennedy and a fierce critic of Bill Gates, is an outspoken anti-vaxxer.

Remember, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has pledged more than $250 million to the Covid-19 response.

But critics like RFK Jr allege that the Microsoft co-founder stands to profit from a virus vaccine.

“This (the vaccine program) is just a huge welfare program for the pharmaceutical industry and Bill Gates is one of the investors as well,” RFK Jr said in a YouTube broadcast this month. “This vaccine is critical probably because this is the only chance that anybody has for getting it ready by January, which is a warp-speed timeline. You can’t do that with a regular vaccine.”

The anti-vaccination activist has also sought to discredit America’s top disease expert, Dr Athony Fauci.

RFK Jr’s accusations against Bill Gates and Fauci have been widely dismissed by the scientific community, the pharmaceutical industry and the political leadership as unfounded conspiracy theories.

That said, opposition to Covid vaccine programmes is getting traction on social-media platforms.


A study by researchers at the George Washington University says that groups opposing vaccines are small in size, but their online-communications strategy is worryingly effective and far-reaching.

In their findings published in the Nature journal this month, the researchers note that anti-vaccination pages tend to have fewer followers but are more numerous than pro-vaccination ones, and are more often linked to in discussions on other Facebook pages — such as parent associations at schools — whose stance on vaccination is undecided.

The study used Facebook pages as clusters and investigated more than 1,300 of them followed by about 85 million individuals.

Researchers surveyed feeds of narratives, public discussions and posting activity on those pages, using a combination of automated processes and subject-matter analyses for perspectives and knowledge.

According to another survey conducted in April by Matt Motta, an assistant professor of political science at the Oklahoma State University, and Kristin Lunz Trujillo, a doctoral candidate at the University of Minnesota, one-fifth of Americans were found to be unwilling to take a potential Covid shot.

That study comprised 493 demographically representative American adults who were asked if they would be willing to get immunised against Covid-19 once a vaccine becomes available.

“We found that about one-fifth of Americans, and more than half of people who hold sceptical views toward vaccine safety, may be unwilling to pursue vaccination,” the researchers reported. “Although most Americans do plan to get vaccinated, noncompliance rates may be high enough to pose a threat to collective immunity.”


But vaccine hunters are at work.

As of now, some 124 potential candidates are in various stages of development in different countries.

The WHO lists around ten of them as frontrunners in the trials.

On its part, the WHO has sought to allay the fears around safety.

“I do want to mention that for some vaccine candidates we had a bit of a head-start in the sense that many of these candidates started their development prior to the emergence of Covid-19 and they began with Sars and with Mers so some of them are a little bit further along,” explained Dr Maria Van Kerhove, the WHO’s technical lead on the coronavirus outbreak.

“But it’s important that as these vaccines are developed we ensure that they fit and they meet all of the criteria to be safe and effective. There’s absolutely no shortcut to that so when we say accelerate the development, we mean accelerate this because there’s a really urgent need but that does not mean that we will skip any steps, that anyone will be allowed to skip any steps to ensure that we have a safe and effective vaccine,” she said on May 20.

Robert F Kennedy Jr speaks in 2015 against a measure requiring California schoolchildren to get vaccinated, during a rally in Sacramento. (AP)


But policymakers seem to realise developing a safe vaccine in a compressed timeframe is easier said than done.

HIV, for example, was first identified in 1983. But a vaccine to prevent the infection is still awaited, nearly four decades later.


From US President Donald Trump, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to international health experts, a refrain is ringing out that the human race might well prepare itself to live coronavirus.

“It is important to put this on the table: this virus may become just another endemic virus in our communities, and this virus may never go away,” Dr Mike Ryan, the WHO’s emergencies director, told a virtual press conference from Geneva on May 13. “HIV has not gone away – but we have come to terms with the virus.”


As the search for a Covid vaccine gets caught between hope and scepticism, the news about it is causing wild swings in the global financial markets.

Early data on research by several drug companies has lifted their stocks up as the rest of the world sank into a deeper recession from lockdowns.

When the White House health advisor, Dr Fauci, hailed non-peer-reviewed results from experimental drug remdesivir as “clear-cut significant” for Covid-19 on April 29, Wall Street cheered and the stocks of drugmaker Gilead Sciences soared in the day trading.

A week before, the markets and the shares of the same US company had tanked after the WHO briefly published parts of another study which concluded that remdesivir trials conducted in China were ineffective.

The WHO removed that research from its website. Its peer-reviewed findings were later published in The Lancet, with a caveat that the trial was incomplete because there weren’t enough patients.

And when US biotech company Moderna announced promising results from a small trial of its coronavirus vaccine on March 18, its stock price jumped as much as 30%.

“You have these wild swings, based on incomplete information,” said David Maris, managing director of Phalanx Investment Partners, and a longtime analyst covering the pharmaceutical industry. “It’s a crazy, speculative environment because the pandemic has caused people to want to believe that there’s going to be a miracle cure in a miracle time frame,” the New York Times quoted Maris as saying in a piece headlined “How upbeat vaccine news fueled a stock surge and an uproar”.

The drugmakers deny accusations of vested interests behind the release of initial results.


Of the ten vaccine candidates in the human trial stage, five are from China alone and the remainder from other countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, according to the WHO.

It normally takes years or a decade or more to develop a vaccine that is safe and effective. Almost all drugmakers involved in the project are trying to shorten the process in this pandemic.

But then there are fears that the program might get caught between the crosscurrents of geopolitics, trade war and nationalistic sentiments.

Earlier this month, George Q. Daley, the dean of Harvard Medical School, told the New York Times that thinking in country-by-country rather than global terms would be foolhardy. Such an approach, he added, “would involve squandering the early doses of vaccine on a large number of individuals at low risk, rather than covering as many high-risk individuals globally to stop the spread”.

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