The next vaccine breakthrough: Health experts identify ways to help people trust a coronavirus vaccine

The pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and BioNtech announced Nov. 20, 2020, that they will seek emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration for a vaccine to prevent COVID-19. On Nov. 16, Moderna announced that a vaccine it has been working on has been shown to be close to 95% effective.

But no vaccine will be anywhere nearly that effective in reality if people refuse to take it. And recent polls suggest that about 40% of Americans won’t take a COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available. Those numbers are even higher among nonwhite Americans.

The factors that lead people to make choices to take vaccines are nuanced. People’s choices are affected by how they see the world, their perceptions of the choices people like them will make, whom they trust, their perceptions of risk, consistency of message and convenience of actually getting the vaccine.

In a world with unlimited supplies of vaccine and budget to support outreach, public officials could craft highly specific campaigns for each community and identity in the world. The vaccine would be simultaneously available to everyone, and our personal doctors would administer it and assure us of its efficacy.

That world doesn’t exist.

Melissa Fleming, the United Nations undersecretary general for global communications, recently launched the Verified initiative to combat misinformation about COVID-19. Verified engaged the Center for Public Interest Communications at the University of Florida. Our team of scholars, strategists and storytellers works with organizations around the world to apply social, behavioral and cognitive science to drive lasting social change. We were asked to identify research-based messages that might overcome vaccine hesitancy. Verified released our guide Thursday.

We quickly identified the leading scholars in this space, and 16 social and behavioral psychologists, medical anthropologists, behavioral economists, neuroscientists and political communications scholars joined us for a series of conversations over five days. We asked questions like: What makes people resilient against misinformation? What drives vaccine hesitancy? Which frames will be most effective? What kinds of message strategies have been effective with specific communities? And finally, what are some of the best ways to make taking the vaccine a social norm?

Eight principles emerged from those conversations that we believe can increase trust, acceptance and demand for vaccination. We have shared these principles with the leaders across the U.N. as part of their global efforts to reduce vaccine hesitancy and overcome misinformation related to COVID-19.

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