If the pandemic so far is any indication, a vaccination program is likely to take place against a backdrop of partisanship and misinformation. Already, conspiracy theories are spreading about a COVID-19 vaccine, some of them downright outlandish. But the emphasis on speed—as in “Operation Warp Speed”—has also created real worries about vaccines being rushed to market. At a congressional hearing with five vaccine makers on Tuesday, company officials had to repeatedly push back against the idea that the industry might cut corners for a COVID-19 vaccine.
“We’re going to be in a situation where some people will be desperate to get the vaccine and some people will be afraid to get the vaccine. And there’ll be probably a lot of people in between who are a little bit of both or not sure,” says Michael Stoto, a public-health researcher at Georgetown University. A vaccine, especially a novel one that doesn’t offer complete protection against COVID-19, will require careful communication about risk. “The fact that we can’t get ourselves straight about wearing masks will make that harder,” he adds. Given the number of Americans who are currently unsure of or opposed to getting a COVID-19 vaccine, Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has warned that even a vaccine might not get the country to herd immunity if too many people refuse it.
For the Americans pinning their hopes on a vaccine, a botched rollout could feel like yet another example of failure in the time of COVID-19. That could have disastrous consequences that last well beyond the pandemic itself. Brunson worries that such a scenario could undermine trust in public-health expertise and in all vaccines. “Both of those would be disasters,” she says, “in addition to the COVID itself being a disaster.” It could mean, for example, further resurgences of vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles and an even bigger challenge when battling future pandemics.