The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has seen possibly the largest modern outpouring of research focused on a single pathogen or disease condition because of its high transmission rates coupled with its mortality rate, which, though not extremely high in itself, amounted to five million documented deaths over the less than two years since the outbreak began in December 2019.
Study: Quantifying changes in vaccine coverage in mainstream media as a result of COVID-19 outbreak. Image Credit: ezphoto/ Shutterstock
To control this pandemic, containment of viral spread is essential. This led to the implementation of a host of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) such as physical distancing from non-family members when outside the home, social distancing in public places, mask use, and finally, vaccine development and deployment. The latter has raised hackles in many skeptics worldwide, despite the impressive reduction in severe disease and hospitalizations that follow mass vaccinations.
A recent study available on the medRxiv* preprint server explores how vaccine coverage has come to the forefront of modern news media following the emergence of the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2).
Vaccine hesitancy has been a stumbling block for almost every government in the developed world that seeks to enforce a universal COVID-19 mandate in adults barring a few essential exemptions. However, it is not a COVID-19-specific phenomenon, having been named by the World Health Organization (WHO) as one of the top ten global health threats. For many scientists, vaccine hesitancy is due to misperception, which results from the kind of information that the hesitant individual is open to or receives.
Social media is the biggest source of information for many people, such as Twitter, Facebook, and Whatsapp messages or forwards. One recent report shows that while the majority of tweets about vaccines are positive towards it, much misinformation is also being disseminated. Some of this, if not all, is potentially a coordinated attempt to sow fear and distrust of vaccines and the authorities recommending their use.
In fact, one study has shown that the more fake information about vaccines that appears in tweets, the lower is the vaccine uptake in that country. Twitter users who spread vaccine disinformation typically appeal to the emotions and the love of mystery, spouting conspiracy theories. Moreover, in the partisan world of today, vaccines have become a matter of political affiliation rather than of medical science, sadly enough.
Vaccine-related discussions also show different sides of the individual, with those favoring vaccination speaking of social responsibility to prevent the spread of the virus to high-risk individuals and cut short the pandemic as soon as possible. Conversely, the other side defends individual liberty to the death.
What did the study show?
The current study focuses on mainstream news media, which can be important in the stand they take on vaccines. This seems to be the first such study on how online mainstream news media portray the vaccine and vaccine-related news, using approximately 28 million news headlines from 11 different countries. Hopefully, this information will shape how public health authorities communicate about the vaccine and perhaps reduce vaccine hesitancy.
The researchers classified online coverage of vaccine news as:
- Pre-pandemic: July 2015 - 8 January, 2020 – on the latter day, the media began to provide daily coverage of the virus
- Pre-vaccine rollout from 9 January, 2020 - 9 November, 2020 – on the latter day, following the report by Pfizer/BioNTech that their experimental vaccine had 90% efficacy
- During vaccine rollout from 10 November, 2020 - 2 April, 2021
The results show that most of the vaccine coverage was due to reporting on the pandemic. The focus of the coverage was on the pandemic, however, and not on vaccines used before the pandemic.
As such, vaccine-pandemic headlines kept increasing in frequency until they comprised 6-8% of the total. They then remained stable at this level until the end of the study period. This was attributed to the intense excitement engendered by the early news release on November 9, 2020, that the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine had 90% efficacy, following which it was rolled out within a month in the UK.
While negative coverage increased by a factor of four, in absolute terms, over the pandemic period, to over 28,000, more than 60% of articles on this topic were positively slanted during the pandemic period, vs. 43% before the start of COVID-19.
Most of the articles were linked to the major manufacturers of COVID-19 vaccines. Still, AstraZeneca garnered largely negative coverage compared to even Johnson and Johnson, despite both having the same type and number of complications. While most of these firms were negligible (0.01%) in terms of media mention before the pandemic, they became frequently mentioned (~3.9%) during this time.
What are the implications?
The results of this study are important in revealing the kind of media articles that were available for people to learn about vaccines during this period. These would play a big role in shaping the attitude of people towards the COVID-19 vaccines.
The study demonstrated how both the number of mentions and the tone of the reporting changed over the course of the pandemic. The largely positive overtones of the reporting, despite the occurrence of side-effects with each of the vaccines, is a reassuring finding. Surprisingly, firms that collaborated on vaccine development were not always correlated in the coverage, reflecting in the negative or positive light in which the dominant firm was viewed, with less mention of the other.
Overall our results provide a quantification of the increased vaccine reporting during the COVID-19 pandemic. How the increased coverage will translate into public perception of vaccines is yet to be seen by traditional survey-based studies.”
medRxiv publishes preliminary scientific reports that are not peer-reviewed and, therefore, should not be regarded as conclusive, guide clinical practice/health-related behavior, or treated as established information.