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A researcher’s view on COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy: The scientific process needs to be better explained

Before the pandemic, the public perceived science as infallible and inaccessible. But the opening up of research to the general public has changed that perception.

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In the reluctance to vaccinate, there is a lack of trust and understanding of the scientific process. Better communication would help rebuild bridges. The Canadian Press/Paul Chiasson

When I first wrote about the arrival of SARS-CoV-2 in early March 2020, the question was whether or not the new virus would become a pandemic. At the time, most experts believed that we had already reached the point of no return.

Today, 18 months later, the answer is clear. You don’t need to be a scientist to know it. This pandemic is the worst public health emergency of international concern that our modern society has faced. To date, more than 215 million cases have been confirmed and 4.5 million deaths have been reported globally.

These are just the reported cases. In reality, the number of cases is higher, and for a variety of reasons: lack of diagnostic capacity, infection without symptoms, unwillingness or inability to be tested or to visit a health facility, etc. The number of deaths due to COVID-19 is probably underestimated, both in Canada and worldwide.

In addition to changing the way we live our daily lives, the pandemic has brought scientific processes to public attention. Researchers, used to working in the shadows, now had to provide solutions — and explanations — to a very real threat, and they have been doing this under the watchful eye of the public.

Click here for more articles in our series about vaccine confidence.

One of these solutions, vaccination, is far from new. Yet no matter what the context, it has always generated news. So where are we now?

Still in our laboratories! I recently completed my PhD in microbiology-immunology at Laval University, research that I conducted under the supervision of Professor Gary Kobigner, who is known for co-developing an effective vaccine and treatment for Ebola. This fall, I will begin a postdoctoral fellowship at the Galveston National Laboratory in Texas, where I will continue my work on the transmission of, and vaccine development against, severe pathogens.

Relevant questions

The World Health Organization (WHO) currently lists 13 available COVID-19 vaccines, based on four different platforms, including mRNA vaccines and viral vector vaccines. Globally, more than five billion doses of vaccines have been administered. In Canada, five of these vaccines are currently approved for use: Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, AstraZeneca, COVISHIELD and Janssen, with Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and AstraZeneca in wide distribution. Combined, these vaccines have been administered to approximately 70 per cent of Canadians.

A woman administers a vaccine to another woman, seated, from behind
A woman receives her COVID-19 vaccine at Olympic Stadium in Montréal. Five vaccines have been approved in Canada and about 70 per cent of the population is doubly vaccinated. The Canadian Press/Paul Chiasson

However, many people have raised questions about these vaccines. And it is fair to do so! The unknown has always been a source of anxiety for human beings, it is normal to ask questions.

So, after working tirelessly to develop vaccines against COVID-19, what are scientists and doctors doing now?

They are doing what they have always done: Practising the best science they can within the limits of current knowledge. This scientific practice means continuing to evaluate the effectiveness of these vaccines against new variants in labs, as the virus continues to mutate.

It means continuing to record who has experienced side-effects (serious or not) from vaccination and continuing to investigate the potential links between these side-effects and the vaccine. The science they are practising involves studying the virus day and night to understand how it makes people sick, how we can prevent infection and what our options are for getting rid of it as quickly as possible.

The term “current knowledge” is very important here. It is possible that more side-effects related to vaccination will be discovered much later. Here’s why.

The scientific method

When vaccines are initially developed in the laboratory and tested on animals, it is normal that not all side-effects are identified. A mouse is not a human, after all, and models cannot account for all the variables that can be found in a human. Humans live in a complex environment and society where individuals each have their own genetics, immunity and lifestyle (exercise, smoking, nutrition).

Furthermore, the more people are vaccinated, the greater the likelihood of detecting a serious side-effect. Clinical trials, where drugs and vaccines are evaluated in a small group of individuals before being made available to the general population, are designed to be safe. Volunteers are usually healthy adults, without serious pre-existing medical conditions.


Read more: Explainer: How clinical trials test COVID-19 vaccines


Vaccination is now widespread in many countries. It is therefore statistically normal that rarer effects (for example, ones that one in a million people develop) are now being observed. These effects are too rare to have been detected in a clinical trial of 10,000 people. This is the case for rare side-effects such as Guillain-Barré syndrome and Bell’s palsy.

The scientific method requires that the following process is followed: Observe a problem, formulate a hypothesis about its possible causes, evaluate it experimentally by controlling the variables, interpret the results and draw a conclusion.

It can turn out that our initial hypothesis is wrong, and that is equally acceptable. This is how science was designed. I think that before the pandemic, people considered science infallible. Opening up research to the general public has greatly changed this perception, especially as science quickly became embroiled in politics, particularly over the question of the origin of the pandemic.

Justin Trudeau is surrounded by scientists, in a lab
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with scientists during a visit to the National Research Council of Canada (NRC), in Montréal, August 2020. The scientific method makes it possible to observe a problem, formulate a hypothesis about its causes, evaluate it experimentally by controlling the variables, interpret the results and draw a conclusion. The Canadian Press/Graham Hughes

Knowing how to communicate

And that’s where the problem comes from, among other things. The key to effective scientific communication is not the science. It’s the communication. The results of laboratory experiments and clinical trials are what they are. Either the vaccine or drug works to reduce mortality, or it doesn’t work, and we go back to the drawing board.

So where does the reluctance about vaccines come from? One of the main problems is not the lack of information about the safety of the vaccine. Almost everyone has access to this information on internet. The problem is the lack of trust in institutions, which has been growing globally in recent years.


Read more: How better conversations can help reduce vaccine hesitancy for COVID-19 and other shots


But this trust can be earned — or regained. It just takes time, respect and empathy. A study by researchers at the Centre Hospitalier Universitaire de Sherbrooke shows that an educational session about immunization that used motivational interviewing techniques with parents of infants resulted in a nine per cent increase in immunization rates compared with families who did not receive the sessions.

Finding the right answer to a question

Ultimately, the goal of science is to find the right answer to a question.

Of course, human nature being what it is, we are not immune to conflicts of interest. We need to ensure transparency about things like funding and links between scientists and potential investors. This is especially important since we are all responsible for funding research, whether through federal subsidies, which are partly derived from taxes paid by citizens, or through the ordinary purchase of drugs in pharmacies.

Since this concerns everyone, it is high time that the public became more involved. After all, scientific discoveries and health measures are everybody’s business. For example, few citizens are familiar with “gain-of-function research.” These studies can involve a level of risk ranging from very low to very high. For example, producing a drug from a bacterium carries little risk and much benefit. However, increasing the virulence or transmissibility of a virus such as Ebola or Influenza could carry a lot of risk if such research were carried out by individuals with bad intentions, or in poorly secured laboratories.


Read more: Origins of SARS-CoV-2: Why the lab-leak idea is being considered again


As with any aspect of science, a risk-benefit analysis must be carried out. Note that in the vast majority of institutions where research is done, the committees assessing whether or not a study is worth doing are not only composed of scientists and students, but also members of the public.

Now each side just has to do its part. Scientists need to do a better job of communicating their results and the interpretation of them, as well as specifically answering questions of interest to the public and regaining their trust. They need to listen and stop hiding behind mountains of data, complicated words and scientific articles that are not easily accessible to the general public.

To those who are hesitant about vaccination, scientists should ask: “What data would make you change your mind?”, “Why do you think the current data are insufficient?”, “Why do you trust this individual, but not another or the institutions?” This is how constructive dialogue can be initiated and more in-depth reflection can begin.

For their part, citizens can adopt better practices when it comes to getting information and not only consider information that fits into their personal narrative. It is also important to avoid falling into a spiral of conspiracy theories and trust in false experts. It is important to not be afraid to doubt, to find other sources to confirm or refute what you have just read and to ask trusted experts around you what they think.

Do you have a question about COVID-19 vaccines? Email us at ca‑vaccination@theconversation.com and vaccine experts will answer questions in upcoming articles.

Marc-Antoine De La Vega does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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Huge Dock Worker Protests In Italy, Fears Of Disruption, As Covid ‘Green Pass’ Takes Effect

Huge Dock Worker Protests In Italy, Fears Of Disruption, As Covid ‘Green Pass’ Takes Effect

Following Israel across the Mediterranean being the first country in the world to implement an internal Covid passport allowing only vaccinated citize

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Huge Dock Worker Protests In Italy, Fears Of Disruption, As Covid 'Green Pass' Takes Effect

Following Israel across the Mediterranean being the first country in the world to implement an internal Covid passport allowing only vaccinated citizens to engage in all public activity, Italy on Friday implemented its own 'Green Pass' in the strictest and first such move for Europe

The fully mandatory for every Italian citizen health pass "allows" entry into work spaces or activities like going to restaurants and bars, based on one of the following three conditions that must be met: 

  • proof of at least one dose of Covid-19 vaccine

  • or proof of recent recovery from an infection

  • or a negative test within the past 48 hours

Via AFP

It's already being recognized in multiple media reports as among "the world's strictest anti-COVID measures" for workers. First approved by Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi's cabinet a month ago, it has now become mandatory on Oct.15.

Protests have been quick to pop up across various parts of the country, particularly as workers who don't comply can be fined 1,500 euros ($1,760); and alternately workers can be forced to take unpaid leave for refusing the jab. CNN notes that it triggered "protests at key ports and fears of disruption" on Friday, detailing further:

The largest demonstrations were at the major northeastern port of Trieste, where labor groups had threatened to block operations and around 6,000 protesters, some chanting and carrying flares, gathered outside the gates.

    Around 40% of Trieste's port workers are not vaccinated, said Stefano Puzzer, a local trade union official, a far higher proportion than in the general Italian population.

    Workers at the large port of Trieste have effectively blocked access to the key transport hub...

    As The Hill notes, anyone wishing to travel to Italy anytime soon will have to obtain the green pass: "The pass is already required in Italy for both tourists and nationals to enter museums, theatres, gyms and indoor restaurants, as well as to board trains, buses and domestic flights."

    The prime minister had earlier promoted the pass as a way to ensure no more lockdowns in already hard hit Italy, which has had an estimated 130,000 Covid-related deaths since the start of the pandemic.

    Meanwhile, the requirement of what's essentially a domestic Covid passport is practically catching on in other parts of Europe as well, with it already being required to enter certain hospitality settings in German and Greece, for example. Some towns in Germany have reportedly begun requiring vaccination proof just to enter stores. So likely the Italy model will soon be enacted in Western Europe as well.

    Tyler Durden Sat, 10/16/2021 - 07:35

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    Tracking Global Hunger & Food Insecurity

    Tracking Global Hunger & Food Insecurity

    Hunger is still one the biggest – and most solvable – problems in the world.

    Every day, as Visual Capitalist’s Bruno Venditti notes, more than 700 million people (8.8% of the world’s population)..

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    Tracking Global Hunger & Food Insecurity

    Hunger is still one the biggest - and most solvable - problems in the world.

    Every day, as Visual Capitalist's Bruno Venditti notes, more than 700 million people (8.8% of the world’s population) go to bed on an empty stomach, according to the UN World Food Programme (WFP).

    The WFP’s HungerMap LIVE displayed here tracks core indicators of acute hunger like household food consumption, livelihoods, child nutritional status, mortality, and access to clean water in order to rank countries.

    After sitting closer to 600 million from 2014 to 2019, the number of people in the world affected by hunger increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.

    In 2020, 155 million people (2% of the world’s population) experienced acute hunger, requiring urgent assistance.

    The Fight to Feed the World

    The problem of global hunger isn’t new, and attempts to solve it have making headlines for decades.

    On July 13, 1985, at Wembley Stadium in London, Prince Charles and Princess Diana officially opened Live Aid, a worldwide rock concert organized to raise money for the relief of famine-stricken Africans.

    The event was followed by similar concerts at other arenas around the world, globally linked by satellite to more than a billion viewers in 110 nations, raising more than $125 million ($309 million in today’s dollars) in famine relief for Africa.

    But 35+ years later, the continent still struggles. According to the UN, from 12 countries with the highest prevalence of insufficient food consumption in the world, nine are in Africa.

     

    Approximately 30 million people in Africa face the effects of severe food insecurity, including malnutrition, starvation, and poverty.

     

    Wasted Leftovers

    Although many of the reasons for the food crisis around the globe involve conflicts or environmental challenges, one of the big contributors is food waste.

    According to the United Nations, one-third of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted globally. This amounts to about 1.3 billion tons of wasted food per year, worth approximately $1 trillion.

    All the food produced but never eaten would be sufficient to feed two billion people. That’s more than twice the number of undernourished people across the globe. Consumers in rich countries waste almost as much food as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa each year.

    Solving Global Hunger

    While many people may not be “hungry” in the sense that they are suffering physical discomfort, they may still be food insecure, lacking regular access to enough safe and nutritious food for normal growth and development.

    Estimates of how much money it would take to end world hunger range from $7 billion to $265 billion per year.

    But to tackle the problem, investments must be utilized in the right places. Specialists say that governments and organizations need to provide food and humanitarian relief to the most at-risk regions, increase agricultural productivity, and invest in more efficient supply chains.

    Tyler Durden Fri, 10/15/2021 - 23:30

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    Retail And Food Sales: If It’s Not Inflation, And It’s Not, Then What Is It?

    OK, so we went through the ways and reasons consumer price increases are not inflation, cannot be inflation, are nowhere near actual inflation, and what all that really means. The rate they’ve gone up hasn’t been due to an overactive Federal Reserve,…

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    OK, so we went through the ways and reasons consumer price increases are not inflation, cannot be inflation, are nowhere near actual inflation, and what all that really means. The rate they’ve gone up hasn’t been due to an overactive Federal Reserve, so it has to be something else. This is why, though the bulge has been painful, it’s already beginning to normalize. Without a persistent monetary component (in reality, not what’s in the media) the economy will adjust eventually.

    It already has. Several times, and that’s part of the problem.



    If not money, and it’s not, then what is behind the camel humps? No surprise, Uncle Sam’s ill-timed drops along with reasonable rigidities in the supply chain.

    An Economist might call this an accordion effect. One recently did:

    The closures and reopenings of different industries, coupled with the surges and lags in consumer purchasing during the pandemic, have caused an “accordion effect,” says Shelby Swain Myers, an economist for American Farm Bureau Federation, with lots of industries playing catch-up even as they see higher consumer demand.

    Not just surges and lags, but structural changes that have been forced onto the supply chain from them. With the Census Bureau reporting US retail sales today, no better time than now and no better place than food sales to illustrate the non-economics responsible for the current “inflation” problem.

    When governments panicked in early 2020, they shut down without thinking any farther than “two weeks to slow the spread.” This is, after all, any government’s modus operandi; unintended consequences is what they do.

    The food supply chain had for decades been increasingly adapted to meeting the needs of two very different methods of distributing food products; X amount of capacity was dedicated to the at-home grocery model, while Y had been set up for the growing penchant for eating out (among the increasingly fewer able to afford it). Essentially, two separate supply chains which don’t easily mix; if at all.

    Not only that, food distributors can’t simply switch from one to the other. And even if they could, the costs of doing so, and the anticipated payback when undertaking this, were and are massive considerations. McKinsey calculated these trade-offs in the middle of last year, sobering hurdles for an already stretched situation back then:

    Moreover, many food-service producers have already invested in equipment and facilities to produce and package food in large multi-serving formats for complex prepared-, processed-, frozen-, canned-, and packaged-food value chains. It would be highly inefficient to reconfigure those investments to single service sizes.

    And if anyone had reconfigured or would because they felt this economic shift might be more permanent:

    For food-service producers, the dilemma is around the two- to five-year payback period of new packaging lines. Reinvesting and rebalancing a food-service network for retail is not a straightforward decision. Companies making new investments would be facing a 40 percent or more decline in revenue. And any number of issues could extend the payback period or make investments unrecoverable. Forecasts are uncertain, for example, about the duration of pandemic-related demand shifts, the recovery of the food-service economy, and the timeline of returning to full employment.

    So, for some the accordion of shuttered restaurants squeezed food distributors far more toward the grocery and take-home way of doing their food businesses. And it may have seemed like a great bet, or less disastrous, as “two weeks to slow the spread” morphed to other always-shifting government mandates which appeared to make these non-economics of the pandemic a permanent impress.

    More grocery, less dining. Forever after.

    In one famous example, Heinz Ketchup responded to what some called the Great Ketchup/Catsup? Shortage by rearranging eight, yes, eight production lines to spit out their tomato paste in individual servings rather than bottles. CEO Miguel Patricio told Time Magazine back in June (2021) there hadn’t actually been any shortage of product, just the wrong packaging for it:

    It’s not that we don’t have ketchup. We have ketchup, but in different packages. The strain on demand started when people stopped going to restaurants and they were ordering takeout and home delivery. There would be a lot of packets in the takeout orders. So we have bottles; we don’t have enough pouches. There were pouches being sold on eBay.

    But then…vaccines. Suddenly, after over a year of the above, by April 2021 the doors were flung back open, stir-crazy Americans flew back to their local pubs and establishments (see: below) and within months, according to retail sales, it was almost back to normal again. Meaning pre-COVID.



    The accordion had expanded back out but how much of the food services supply chain had been converted to serve the eat-at-home way which many companies had understandably been led to believe was going to be a lasting transformation?

    Do they undertake even more costly and wasted investments to go back? Maybe they resist, just shipping what they have even if not fully suited in the way it had been before all this began.

    Does Heinz spend the money to reconfigure those same eight production lines so as to revert to producing their ketchup in bottles? Almost certainly, but equally certain they’re going to take their sweet time doing it; milking every last ounce of efficiency – limiting their losses, really – they can out of what may prove to have been a bad decision (again, you can’t really fault Mr. Patricio for being unable to predict pandemic politics).

    Rancher Greg Newhall of Windy N Ranch in Washington likewise told NPR that he has the animals, beef, pork, lamb, chicken, goat, but distributors are caught in the accordion (Newhall didn’t use that term):

    NEWHALL: People don’t understand how unstable and insecure the supply chain is. That isn’t to say that people are going to starve, but they may be eating alternate meats or peanut butter rather than ground beef.

    GARCIA-NAVARRO: Newhall says he hasn’t had any issues raising his animals. It’s the processing and shipping that’s the bottleneck, as the industry’s biggest players pay top dollar to secure their own supply chains.

    The usual credentialed Economist NPR asked for comment first tried to blame LABOR SHORTAGE!!! issues, including those the mainstream had associated with the pandemic (closed schools forcing parents to stay home, or workers somehow deathly afraid of working in close proximity with others) before then admitting:

    CHRIS BARRETT: And there’s also the readjustment of the manufacturing process. As restaurants are quickly opening back up, the food manufacturers and processors have to retool to begin to supply again the bulk-packaged products that are being used by institutional food service providers.

    With US retail sales continuing at an elevated rate, the pressures on the goods sector are going to remain intense.


    Because, however, this is not inflation – there’s no monetary reasons behind the price gouge – the economy given enough time will adjust. And it has adjusted in some ways, very painful ways.

    Painful in the sense beyond just hyped-up food prices and what we pay for gasoline lately, the services sector has instead born the brunt of this ongoing adjustment. Consumers have bought up goods (in retail sales) at the expense of what they aren’t buying in services (not in retail sales); better pricing for sparsely available goods stuck in supply chains, seeming never-ending recession for service providers.

    According to the BEA’s last figures, overall services spending remains substantially lower than when the recession began last year. And it shows in services prices which had been temporarily boosted by Uncle Sam’s helicopter only to quickly, far more speedily and noticeably fall back in line with the prior, pre-existing disinflationary trend following a much smaller second camel hump.



    Once the supply and other non-economic issues get sorted out, we would expect the same thing in goods, too. It is already shaping up this way, though bottlenecks and inefficiencies are sure to remain impediments and drags well into next year.

    Those include other factors beyond food or domestic logistical nightmares. Port problems, foreign sourcing, etc. The accordion has played the entire global economy, and in one sense it has created the illusion of recovery and inflation out of a situation which in reality is nothing like either.

    That’s the literal downside of transitory. We can see what the price bulge(s) had really been, and therefore what it never was.

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