We're en route to a vaccine. Now we just need people to take it

To boost vaccination rates and fight the Covid-19 pandemic, health officials may need to enlist the help of psychologists

A handout photo shows an employee demonstrating a vial with "Gam-COVID-Vac" vaccine against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), developed by the Gamaleya National Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology and the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), during its production at Binnopharm pharmaceutical company in Zelenograd near Moscow, Russia August 7, 2020. Picture taken August 7, 2020. The Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF)/Andrey Rudakov/Handout via REUTERS  ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES. MANDATORY CREDIT.
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There are currently around 165 Covid-19 vaccines in development. The global race for an effective and safe vaccine appears to be approaching the home straight. On August 11, the Russian Ministry of Health officially registered Sputnik V, which it claims is the first viable vaccine against Covid-19 on the market.

Sputnik V is named after another Russian innovation, Sputnik 1, the first satellite to orbit the earth. Naming a vaccine after a satellite seems odd. Furthermore, in Russian the word "sputnik" means 'travelling companion', apt for a satellite, but perhaps less so for a healthcare technology – at first glance. Soon, however, vaccination against Covid-19 may be a requirement for international travel. If so, the name, travelling companion, would be pure genius.

Jeremy Miller, a brand strategist and author of the book Brand New Name, suggests that, on average, it costs around $2.5 million (Dh9.2m) to conceive and register a new brand name for a drug. Getting the name right is serious business.

This is even more important with a vaccine – getting healthy people to take "medicine" can be a hard sell. Consider that Nobel Prize-winning playwright George Bernard Shaw described vaccines as "a peculiarly filthy piece of witchcraft". Vaccination is an emotional topic, and encouraging people to opt in is an effort that requires all the help it can get. Even something as seemingly trivial as a name might tip the balance for or against a particular vaccine.

Would you allow yourself to be vaccinated against Covid-19? Would you let your child take the vaccine? These are questions we may all be asking ourselves very soon. And the answer tends to split the world into three groups: "yes" (acceptance), "no" (resistance), and "don't know" (hesitancy).

What are the current rates of Covid-19 vaccine acceptance, resistance and hesitancy? A recent poll reported in the journal Science suggests that in the US, Covid-19 vaccine resistance rates are around 50 per cent, with hesitancy rates at approximately 25 per cent. These levels are likely to vary across nations, based on cultural factors and how well the government has managed the pandemic to date. Our own Covid-19 survey work in the Emirates suggests much lower rates for both resistance and hesitancy among UAE citizens and residents.

Focused on vaccination in general, previous research reports women tending to be more hesitant than men. Similarly, people on low incomes are generally more vaccine-hesitant and resistant than their higher-earning counterparts. Other factors worthy of consideration in the current pandemic context might be levels of trust in government and faith in the say-so of experts. It's also worth exploring information behaviours, such as the sources from which people choose to take their health advice. Building up a psychological profile of the most vaccine-hesitant/resistant can help public health officials better prepare the ground for when an effective Covid-19 vaccine becomes widely available.

Public health messaging is an increasingly difficult challenge, especially in an age when almost anyone can release seemingly authoritative documentaries online. For example, Plandemic, a 26-minute, viral conspiracy-theory video released in May, was a toxic mix of myths, mistakes and half-truths. It was, however, viewed by millions, becoming one of the most widespread sources of Covid-19 misinformation to date.

Previous research indicates that women and people with lower incomes tend to be more hesitant to take vaccines

Mainstream public health messaging will also have to compete with the noise generated by legions of anti-vaccination websites and social media campaigns like #antivaccine. It is discouraging that vaccination rates against measles and other infectious diseases were already declining in some countries. Last year, the trend led to the World Health Organisation listing vaccine hesitancy as one of 10 global health threats.

No matter how good public messaging is, however, some people are entrenched in their anti-vaccine beliefs and whatever is said will only strengthen their resistance. This is a stance that, when extreme, shares much in common with paranoid and persecutory delusions. Arguments about the elimination of smallpox, polio and diphtheria are drowned out by the idea of a global conspiracy intent on world domination through a super vaccine.

The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention suggest that more people vaccinated equals fewer opportunities for a disease to spread. In some cases, widespread vaccination leads to the elimination of a disease altogether. Those individuals resisting vaccination, for whatever reason, increase the risk of future outbreaks.

This then comes back to debates about the rights of the individual versus the rights of the community. Do I have the right to refuse vaccination, when we know my actions put the community at risk? It's me versus we.

Public health messaging aimed at increasing the uptake of a future Covid-19 vaccine would benefit from understanding the psychology of those individuals who are vaccine-hesitant or resistant. Beyond the growing demand for psychotherapy, psychology has several other significant roles to play in the current context. One of them is helping us reach those who, wittingly or unwittingly, leave themselves out of the fight to overcome this pandemic.

Justin Thomas is a professor of psychology at Zayed University