Sen. Mitt Romney worries that bogus arguments from “anti-vaxxers,” who claim that all vaccines are dangerous and should be avoided, might undermine widespread use of COVID-19 vaccines when they become available to end the pandemic.
So, in a Senate hearing Wednesday about when such vaccines may come, he asked the U.S. surgeon general and the director of the National Institutes of Health to do more to directly address anti-vaccine claims and help persuade Americans that they are safe and needed to get the spread of the coronavirus under control.
“It’s not just like a social media phenomenon,” Romney said. “I have been approached during visits to my state by people who have whole books that are written describing why vaccines are bad.” He also tweeted later that nearly a third of Americans say they would decline a free, government-approved COVID-19 vaccine.
So Romney told the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee that it would make sense for the government and its scientists to make a comprehensive effort to dispel myths and bogus information on all vaccines, not just those for COVID-19.
"What could we be doing to resolve the debate, the uncertainty that so many Americans have about the wisdom of receiving vaccines?” he asked.
For example, Romney said the U.S. surgeon general for years has warned about the danger of tobacco — with those warnings on cigarette packs and ads — and wondered if similar widespread warnings against anti-vaccine arguments are needed.
U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams replied that his office is trying to warn Americans against anti-vaccine claims, including “working with platforms like Twitter and Pinterest and Facebook to make sure appropriate and accurate information is displayed prominently when people do a search.”
Among the other 10%, the surgeon general said most are not strident anti-vaxxers but are in what he calls the “vaccine-hesitant” category.
“That’s what we really need to work on,” he said. “We need to work on educating them and engaging them and being compassionate with them and patient with them to answer their questions.”
Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, said anti-vaccine arguments have been damaging for years.
For instance, he said the government 20 years ago had declared measles as eradicated in America. But as more parents chose not to vaccinate children against it, the disease returned. “Last year, we had more than 1,000 cases and people had forgotten that kids die of that disease.”
Those vaccines “are available now. But if they’re not getting used, we’re facing that same kind of terrible consequence,” Collins said. “It is heartbreaking and I must say frustrating and sometimes even causes you a little bit of anger and frustration that this kind of misinformation is so readily spread by people who have another agenda.”
Collins said younger generations do not remember or know people who were killed by diseases now largely eradicated by vaccines, and anti-vaccine arguments have especially taken root enough with them.
“We have a hard, hard road to go to try to counter that when so many people don’t see in their own experience the reason why this is such a lifesaving activity,” he said.
During the hearing, Collins and Adams repeatedly vowed that the government would ensure that any COVID-19 vaccine is safe and thoroughly vetted before it is offered to the public, and that its release would not be allowed to be accelerated for political purposes in this year’s presidential election.
President Donald Trump has hinted recently about an October surprise in the form of a COVID-19 vaccine before the Nov. 3 election.
“The vaccine will be very safe and very effective,” the president said Monday, according to Bloomberg News. “And it’ll be delivered very soon. Now, you could — you could have a very big surprise coming up."