Flu shots are more popular this year, but there's a caveat

The number of people who say they are opposed to the upcoming Covid-19 vaccine is still high

The mantra "guided by the science" has dominated much of 2020. As a second wave of Covid-19 infection gets under way, there is also a wider social and political fight in the works.

Maria Fernanda Espinosa Garces, the former president of the UN General Assembly, has declared that Covid-19 is now the inescapable issue for diplomacy. To Ms Espinosa Garces, the universal threat should shape new thinking. "With this pandemic, the reality is that no one will be safe until everybody is safe," she said in an interview with this newspaper.

To address the universality of the threat, acceptance of a vaccine must be top of the agenda. Anthony Fauci, the US infectious diseases tsar, set a target of mid-to-late 2021 for a fully functioning vaccine programme to halt the spread of the coronavirus.

To some that may be dismayingly late. But the really worrying issue is how many people will be questioning whether this is the right way to see off the disease.

United Nations General Assembly President Maria Fernanda Espinosa Garces addresses the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., September 25, 2018. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

It appears a no-brainer. Scientists have said that Covid-19 is operating seasonally. A virus that behaves like the flu should logically be controlled with a similar approach. And if a vaccine can be produced, the way forward is to roll it out like the annual flu campaign.

On Monday, I had the 2020 flu jab. Hundreds of millions of people around the world will have the same experience in the weeks ahead.

It was a first for me and was a simple, painless procedure. I have not noticed any appreciable effects in the days since. Yet there is a frisson of doubt about even this simple medication.

The good news is that the flu jab is proving popular this year. On Friday, the World Health Organisation warned that countries should direct available batches to the most vulnerable people most affected by the pandemic. The pharmacy chain that I used announced a few days earlier that it was having to ration the roll-out after demand shot up.

There is plenty of evidence that the pandemic has given a shot in the arm to the anti-vaxxer movement in countries around the world. Tim Kendall, a former Facebook executive, said last week that "toxic additives" in the structures of the social media services are eroding the collective understanding. By pigeon-holing people into groups divided by algorithm, it has fuelled the numbers opposed to the vaccine.

After so much collective stress and strain this year, a surge in interest in a flu vaccine should be good news. But when it comes to a Covid-19 treatment, the potential for a refusenik movement is a real danger when a wipe-out is very important. The suspension of the advanced trials for the drug being developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca, after a participant developed a spinal condition earlier this month, demonstrated the stakes in the vaccine push.

epa08691451 Anthony Fauci, MD, Director, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health; listens to questioning as he testifies during a US Senate Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Hearing to examine COVID-19, focusing on an update on the federal response at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, USA, 23 September 2020.  EPA/Alex Edelman / POOL

A nationwide survey by the UK's Office of National Statistics (ONS) found that, while 64 per cent responded that they were likely to get a flu vaccine, the figure shot up to 78 per cent for Covid-19. But it is relatively shocking that 22 per cent would not plan on taking up a vaccine, given that the death toll is now poised to break through one million.

Natural prejudice will not be easily overcome.

According to the survey, 38 per cent believed that natural immunity is better than the vaccine while 53 per cent said that vaccines could cause unforeseen effects. Meanwhile, 25 per cent subscribed to the view that vaccines were used for commercial profiteering not the greater good.

Taken as a whole, these figures – as a snapshot in confidence in vaccines – are relatively weak. Overall compliance with government advice on the pandemic, such as social distancing and adhering to lockdowns, is around 90 per cent.

Anti-vaccination protesters stand outside of the New Jersey State House as the Assembly passes a bill to limit vaccine religious exemptions on Monday, Dec. 16, 2019, in Trenton.Immigrant Drivers License
For the months ahead, the importance of universal acceptance of the scientific breakthroughs will be crucial

Addressing the UNGA on Saturday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson issued a call to avoid the oncoming dangers. Amid a raft of announcements about giving more resources to Covax, an international mechanism to distribute vaccines, Mr Johnson promised to push for a global multi-point plan to fight the health crisis.

As the milestone of one million deaths from Covid-19 is passed, the UNGA meeting is a chance to pivot global health systems. Mr Johnson said that London would vault to become the third biggest donor to the WHO. “After nine months of fighting Covid, the very notion of the international community looks tattered,” he said via video. “At what I devoutly hope will be the first and last ever Zoom UNGA, [the challenge is] for humanity to reach across borders and repair these ugly rifts.”

His agenda includes early warning detection networks, a new regional capacity to produce vaccines, global protocols for distribution of health emergency equipment, and new global rules.

For the months ahead, the importance of universal acceptance of the scientific breakthroughs will be crucial. If there is continuing community spread of coronavirus in a year, the turning point flagged up by Mr Fauci will be missed.

Damien McElroy is the London bureau chief of The National

Damien McElroy

Damien McElroy

Damien is a  foreign correspondent who has covered politics and conflict across Europe, the Middle East, the US, Africa and Asia. Before joining The National in 2017, he worked for The Sunday Times and Telegraph titles as an editor and roving reporter. He started his career in China and has a degree in finance.