Vaccines Won't Stop the Pandemic Unless at Least 50 Million Skeptical Americans Change Their Minds

November 23, 2020

For all the flak that President Trump has taken over the federal government's response, or lack thereof, to the coronavirus pandemic, the government's vaccine development project, Operation Warp Speed, looks like a winner. According to Pfizer, its vaccine prevented COVID in 95 percent of participants in its clinical trials, which are now complete. Moderna's vaccine, which got $1 billion in U.S. government support, prevents 94 percent of cases, the company said.

It would be hard to exaggerate the degree to which experts have been surprised, and relieved, by these preliminary results. Early in the pandemic, conventional wisdom held that the best we could hope for was a slightly better hit rate than seasonal influenza vaccines, which in a good year protect 50 to 60 percent of those inoculated; the Food and Drug Administration set the target for COVID vaccines at a modest 50 percent. Now we have two vaccines that, in theory, are powerful enough to stop the pandemic in its tracks.

In the midst of the pandemic, the civil liberties rationale has been particularly difficult for health officials to counter. They tend to muster scientific arguments filled with data on reproductive numbers, positivity rates and asymptomatic carriers that don't address what people are truly concerned about.

"When people are emphasizing, 'well, it's my choice, it's my freedom,' it means that they're not actually interested in talking about the science," says David Broniatowski, a professor at George Washington University who studies risk and decision making. "They're not interested in engaging in issues of fact. It becomes engagement in issues of values. That's a dangerous road to go down."

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