Today, Hamm believes the pharmaceutical industry is corrupt, and that it’s attempting to spin up a coronavirus vaccine too quickly. (The latter is a worry of the scientific community too, stoked by President Donald Trump’s ceaseless chatter about having a vaccine ready before Election Day—and the very name of the government’s vaccine project, Operation Warp Speed.) Though Hamm fears contracting COVID-19, when the coronavirus vaccine becomes available, he intends to avoid getting immunized.
People like Hamm might be the missing piece to the puzzle of ending the pandemic for good. Developing a safe, effective coronavirus vaccine will be a monumental achievement, but it might not be enough. Encouraging people to actually get the vaccine might be the real battle, and people are even less predictable than viruses.
If the coronavirus vaccine is 75 percent effective—which would be excellent, considering that the flu shot is only about 50 percent effective—roughly two-thirds of the population would need to be vaccinated, according to Paul Offit, the director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. That number is enough to reach herd immunity—the level at which everyone is protected because there are not enough vulnerable people for the virus to pass between.
Unfortunately, in some polls, far fewer than two-thirds of Americans say they are interested in getting a coronavirus vaccine. Though this number might change as we learn more about the vaccine’s effectiveness and side effects, at some points only about 50 percent of Americans have said they plan to get the vaccine when it becomes available. Some reports suggest that Facebook groups formerly dedicated to merely asking questions about vaccines have switched to more vociferous anti-vaccine views in recent months.
Convincing people like Hamm that the vaccine is safe and effective will be a thorny and complicated task, for which experts say there is no one best approach. It’s something the United States government should start preparing for now—but isn’t.
It’s hard to pin down just who, exactly, the vaccine-hesitant are. White adults are more likely to be vaccinated than Black adults are, perhaps because the latter have less access to medical care, and decades of maltreatment have eroded their trust in the medical establishment.
Anti-vaccine groups have also targeted Black people. About a decade ago, anti-vaxxers in Minnesota invited the discredited researcher Andrew Wakefield, who falsely tied vaccines to autism, to give talks to the state’s Somali immigrant community. Vaccination rates among Somalis plummeted, and a few years later, the community suffered a large measles outbreak.
Otherwise, experts told me, there’s a loose correlation between being Republican and questioning vaccines, and also between harboring vaccine skepticism and believing in conspiracy theories or having a lower level of education. But in general, vaccine skepticism spans from Goop-reading Californians to the ultra-Orthodox Jews of New York. In some ways, being anti-vaccine is a deeply American sentiment: It’s the stubborn belief that individuals know better than the government.