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Data Point: 23 percent say they won’t get a COVID-19 vaccine

‘Anti-vaxxer’ sentiment could jeopardize efforts to build immunity.

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The availability of a vaccine for the novel coronavirus will likely play a key role in determining when Americans can return to life as usual.

Whether a vaccine can end this pandemic successfully, however, depends on more than its effectiveness at providing immunity against the virus, or how quickly it can be produced in mass quantities. Americans also must choose to receive the vaccine.

According to some estimates, 50 to 70 percent of Americans would need to develop immunity to COVID-19 — either naturally, or via a vaccine — in order to thwart the spread of the virus. If these estimates are correct, that could mean that nearly twice as many Americans would need to elect to receive a COVID-19 vaccine as those who currently opt to be vaccinated against seasonal influenza. Just 37 percent of American adults did so in 2017-2018, even in the midst of a historically severe flu season.

Making matters more complicated is the possibility that people who hold skeptical views about vaccine safety — sometimes referred to as “anti-vaxxers” — will not opt to receive the coronavirus vaccine.

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One of us is a doctoral candidate, and the other is a professor, and we both study vaccine resistance. In a demographically representative survey of 493 US adults conducted on April 15, we asked respondents whether they would be willing to get vaccinated against COVID-19 once a vaccine becomes available. Nearly a quarter (23 percent) of respondents said that they would not.

Additionally, and consistent with the view that even a global pandemic may not persuade anti-vaxxers to get vaccinated, we find that 62 percent of people who are skeptical of vaccines said that they will forego COVID-19 vaccination.

We measured vaccine skepticism by asking respondents three questions about whether they find vaccines to be safe, effective, and/or important, which is how vaccine skepticism is typically measured. Respondents indicated whether they thought each characteristic described vaccines “quite a bit,” “a moderate amount,” “a little bit,” or “not at all.” We then averaged the score across the three to create a scale of vaccine skepticism.

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Nearly one-fifth (19 percent) of respondents in our study were more vaccine skeptical than not.

We also asked respondents, specifically, if they self-identified as anti-vaxxers, and nearly 16 percent said they did. For those who identified as anti-vaxxers, 44 percent said they would not vaccinate against COVID-19, compared to 19 percent of people who did not identify as anti-vaxxers.

Our study is currently undergoing peer review. But we believe the findings, while preliminary, suggest that many people who hold anti-vaccine beliefs may jeopardize the effectiveness of a COVID-19 vaccine once it’s available, due to issues of non-compliance. Furthermore, it appears that anti-vaccine sentiment is at least as widespread as it was before the pandemic began.

Kristin Lunz Trujillo is a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of Minnesota. Matt Motta is a political science professor at Oklahoma State University. This article first appeared on The Conversation.