Even as countries and companies race to develop a safe and effective vaccine, U.S. activists and influencers are working to undermine it, seizing on the legitimate fear that the vaccine might be rushed and leveraging that to further a broader anti-vaccine — even anti-science — agenda.
It is a campaign that is primarily playing out on U.S.-owned social networks such as Facebook and YouTube, where misinformation about a potential coronavirus vaccine is flooding hate networks, neighborhood groups and “wellness” communities focused on food or yoga.
In these digital spaces, vaccine hesitancy is mixing with coronavirus denial and merging with far-right American conspiracy theories, including QAnon, which claims that President Trump is secretly fighting a cabal of Satanist pedophiles embedded in the so-called “deep state.”
What’s emerging is a sprawling, international movement that opposes basic public health measures, such as vaccines and masks, denies or downplays the reality of the pandemic, and is increasingly, though not always, linked to the politics of the far right.
It features American figures such as Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a prominent anti-vaccine campaigner, who in August addressed a massive rally in Berlin against coronavirus measures. The crowd included vaccine skeptics, conspiracy theorists and far-right groups, among others.
“The U.S. anti-vaccination movement is globalizing and it’s going toward more extremist tendencies,” said Peter Hotez, dean of the School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and the author of a book on the anti-vaccine movement.
It is hard to quantify the spread of “anti-vax” content across all places and platforms. One report by the U.K.-based Center for Countering Digital Hate found that the 147 largest social media accounts of 409 anti-vaccine groups the organization tracks had collectively increased their followers by at least 7.8 million since 2019.
Those who study vaccine hesitancy and social networks warn that, left unchecked, the movement may lower the number of people willing to be vaccinated against the coronavirus, even once a vaccine is proven safe and effective in clinical trials.
Recent polling suggests that only about 50 percent of Americans would definitely accept a coronavirus vaccine. That figure is comparable for Britons. The number of Germans who said they would be willing to get a hypothetical coronavirus vaccine dropped to 64 percent in June, down from 79 percent in April, one survey found.
Last year, the World Health Organization warned that a rise in vaccine hesitancy could roll back progress on vaccine-preventable diseases, including measles and polio. Since the start of the pandemic, the WHO has once again found itself defending the lifesaving power of vaccines.
“The anti-vaccine movement, they can build narratives to fight against vaccines but the track record of vaccines tells its own story and people should not be confused,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organization, said in September.
Some of the loudest voices coming out of the United States these days are sophisticated, well-funded anti-vaccine “proselytizers,” said Imran Ahmed, chief executive officer at the Center for Countering Digital Hate