A quarter of Canadians don’t want the COVID-19 vaccine. We asked the experts why

After the COVID-19 pandemic tossed the world into chaos, the light at the end of the tunnel was the announcement that major pharmaceutical companies had vaccines in development. 

Two vaccines, made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, have now been approved for use. As Canada rolls out its vaccination campaign, beginning with frontline workers and later the general population, life may soon return to normality.

But, according to Statistics Canada, about 25 per cent of Canadians are not planning on getting the vaccine.

The reasons vary and many revolve around the speed with which the vaccines were hurriedly developed and the technology used to make them. According to the data, some 22.3 million Canadians, or about 75 per cent of the population aged 12 or older, indicated they were somewhat likely or very likely to get the COVID-19 vaccine. The data showed that those with higher levels of education had a higher likelihood to want a vaccine. 

While the anti-vaccine community is small — estimated at roughly one to three per cent of Canada’s population — it is a vocal one. The WHO says vaccine hesitancy is one of the top risks to global health; if enough people opt to not vaccinate themselves or their children, the WHO says, it can lead to outbreaks of viruses that were previously almost completely eradicated, such as measles. 

In the case of COVID-19, if enough Canadians opt against the vaccine, it could mean that successful herd immunity is put at risk. According to the WHO, herd immunity is “the indirect protection from an infectious disease that happens when a population is immune either through vaccination or immunity developed through previous infection.”Depending on how contagious a virus is, herd immunity is estimated to have been achieved when anywhere from 50 to 90 per cent of a population has been vaccinated. 

Why, then, would people decide not to get a vaccine, even when it could help them return to normal life? The reasons are manifold, experts told the National Post.

For a small percentage of Canadians, worry surrounding the time it required to make, test and approve the vaccine, as well as the genetic technology used to create the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, has them on edge. 

Susan Standfield, a self-described “human rights-based, natural health advocate,” forms part of that small percentage. An organizer of anti-lockdown protests, she has stated, without evidence, that COVID-19 is a man-made virus unleashed by the world’s ruling elite to collapse the economy and has circulated claimsthat animal trials were skipped during the testing of both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

However, theAssociated Pressdebunked such claims in late November, concluding that due to the urgency for a vaccine, both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines gained approval to run the Phase I human trials while testing on animals — mice and macaques — at the same time. Both vaccines passed the animal trials. 

For others, their concerns stem from the messenger RNA (mRNA) technology used in vaccines, with some unfounded posts online claiming it can alter individuals’ DNA. While traditional vaccines often use a weakened or inactivated virus to build the body’s immunity to that virus, mRNA technology differs. Instead, it allows our bodies to replicate the spike protein found on the surface of COVID-19, which causes the infection. By doing so, our bodies are able to recognize and attack the spike protein.

In response to concerns about DNA alteration, Zain Chagla, an associate professor of medicine at McMaster University and an infectious disease expert, told the Post that human cells do not have the ability to alter themselves and explained that modifying the human genome is impossible in the context of the vaccine.Chagla said that every living being has mRNA in their bodies and the reason it was chosen was due to the urgency of the situation.

Chagla also explained that the quick production of the vaccine was partly because so many people were being exposed to COVID-19. In this case, vaccine researchers did not have to wait years for a large enough pool of people to develop the illness, so that it could be properly studied. In the development of the shingles vaccine, by contrast, researchers had to wait five to 10 years before they could move ahead in vaccine trials.

According to Gretchen Chapman, a clinical psychologist and professor at Carnegie Mellon University, who studies the psychology behind how humans make health-related decisions, the groups we identify with can have an impact on whether we are pro- or anti-vaccine.Chapman believes that when it comes to our particular vaccine stance, the way in which these beliefs fit into a person’s socio-political groups is often key.

Those who identify as liberal or progressive are more likely to wear masks, heed authority and receive a vaccine, he says, while those with more conservative beliefs often tend to be more skeptical of science and authority, and other factors that can infringe on personal liberties. 

“Really strongly principled anti-vaccination beliefs tend to act like other sorts of moral convictions or strongly-held political beliefs, where our beliefs are in tune with communities and identities that are important to us,” Chapman said. 

Asurvey done by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 86 per cent of Democrats in the United States said they were planning on getting the COVID-19 vaccine, while a much lower 56 per cent of Republicans said they were planning on getting vaccinated. 

“If you’re in a community of other people who feels that strongly, then it’s about fitting in with your group more than about attending to the evidence and all humans have this tendency,” he said.

However, Chapman feels people from varying ideological backgrounds all have valid worries when it comes to the COVID-19 vaccines, saying “it wouldn’t be crazy to be a little bit skeptical of the safety and efficacy of a vaccine that was developed so quickly.” 

For Alison Thompson, an associate professor of pharmaceutical sciences and a professor of public health sciences at the University of Toronto, the issue lies in a mistrust of both government and science. A lack of transparency surrounding the data released by pharmaceutical companies can undermine the credibility of the industry as a whole, she says.

“I think it’s when the government doesn’t acknowledge that there are risks from vaccines, that we see people being very skeptical of whether or not they’re being told the truth,” she said in a telephone interview.

One possible way to start changing the conversation is to have more open and honest discussions about the issues at hand.

Arnaud Gagneur, a professor in the faculty of medicine and health sciences at the University of Sherbrooke, conducted research on vaccination hesitancy by studying the mothers of newborns in hospitals and using a motivational interviewing technique to change their perceptions about vaccination. 

According to Chapman, all humans have the tendency to want to fit into their ideal socio-political and ideological groups. When it comes to those who are anti-vaccine, this can mean that this desire to fit in can override hard evidence.

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