TOAs a virologist, I have spent the last year or more studying the new coronavirus that has changed all of our lives. Communicating our work to the public and speaking to the media is an important part of my job, and I have always tried to be clear and precise about the science: I believe that the available vaccines against Covid-19 are safe, and they are our best route back to a more normal way of life.
I have been concerned about the anti-vaccination movement since before the pandemic. But I never imagined that my own work could be part of his arsenal of misinformation. So I was surprised to find out that a recent television interview I did for ITV London News It had been taken advantage of by anti-vaccine and conspiracy activists and now has thousands of likes, shares, and retweets on social media.
the original interview I was about to our research on the Pfizer vaccine, which found that the levels of antibodies it generates are not as good at neutralizing the Delta variant as against the original Wuhan strain, a simple update on the possible protection of the vaccine. But the widely shared versions of the video were often edited, or taken out of context, to make me pass as some kind of supervillain, or the unlikely hero of the anti-vax world.
In some videos, I am shown playing the role of the brave dissident within the establishment, denouncing some imaginary damage from the vaccine. In another, I am introduced as the head of the “UK biological weapons program”, surprising me by admitting that the Covid vaccine could somehow destroy your immune system.
Like the virus itself, the videos appeared to be mutating and spreading, with new, more virulent variants catching on online. One of the most-viewed videos created an intricate and conspiratorial narrative involving vaccines, alien DNA, and abortion that was repeated over and over again, and featured the same clip of me replayed over and over at various points.
Judging from the messages that arrive in my inbox, there are a lot of people trapped by this. I get dozens of notifications a week (even three months later) from people still citing these videos as proof that vaccines don’t work.
And I keep getting direct inquiries from people genuinely concerned about the impact of these videos. I heard from a prison nurse in New Zealand who wanted to reassure the prisoners. under their care they were afraid of being vaccinated. I heard from a woman in the United States, fearful for her clinically vulnerable brother, who said he was misled by online conspiracies. I heard from a couple in Canada trying to decide whether to accept the vaccine, who wanted to understand exactly where these videos attached to the truth and where they had strayed from it.
When I have responded, the response has always been appreciated. I hope I have been able to persuade people to get the protection that vaccination offers. But the hundreds of thousands of social media accounts that share this distortion of my words are a different matter, forcing me to reflect on what makes anti-vaccines share their misguided views so energetically.
A clever aspect of videos is that they start with a trace of plausibility before veering off into the implausible. In our research, we found that the antibodies generated by the vaccine neutralize the Delta variant six times less than the original strain in the laboratory.
But it is far better to have some antibodies than none, a fact confirmed by the vaccine’s continued success in preventing serious illness and death around the world. And the idea that vaccines destroy your immune system is simply false: antibody levels in vaccinated people are still much higher than in unvaccinated people. Obscuring this fact has obvious tragic consequences, since unvaccinated patients they continue to fill intensive care units around the world.
Another part of the appeal of such misinformation is that it restores a sense of agency to people who lack a sense of control over their own lives. It makes people feel like they are part of a “tribe” of those in the know. Every time one of these videos was blocked by Twitter or YouTube, the commenters took it as proof that the misinformation was therefore true.
And the fact that these claims are obviously ridiculous and widely condemned by doctors and scientists serves its own purpose. Those most involved in spreading misinformation may claim that they and their followers are being oppressed, further isolating the susceptible and creating an echo chamber online.
It may seem counterintuitive for a scientist to discourage skepticism: after all, the first thing I teach my students is to be critical of the data and to think of alternative interpretations. But in this case, it’s skepticism built on a foundation of deep theoretical and practical knowledge and an understanding of the field in which they work – something vaccine critics lack, no matter how informed they may be in other areas..
It would be as if I, as a scientist, refused to drive a car equipped with airbags because I heard that they had explosives, no matter how many times qualified engineers explained to me that airbags would save my life.
Everyone, no matter how smart, relies on expert judgment to shape parts of their worldview and make decisions. Even people who spread dangerous conspiracies know it, and that’s why I ended up in the anti-vax vortex: I was used as an expert voice against vaccines.
On Twitter, one person exasperatedly argued against people sharing one of the conspiracy videos in which I am the unwitting star, saying, “Come on folks, can’t you see it’s nobody?” Without trivializing my achievements and those of my colleagues, that person is right. I have not invented a vaccine. I don’t have a role in the government and I don’t run a hospital.
But I have an official title as a scientist and a great deal of scientific work that demonstrates my relevant experience. And the anti-vax movement has hardly anyone with those things willing to side with it: the overwhelming majority of scientists rightly believe in vaccines.
So when I appeared in a video that could easily be misrepresented, they took the opportunity to “recruit” me. So if you were in any way swayed by the claims I apparently made in those videos, take the advice that I really believe: the vaccine will protect you from Covid. Get vaccinated.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism