What would a vaccine rollout mean for healthcare comms?

As we inch closer towards a Covid vaccine approval, PR experts warn about the challenges around transparency, access and trust.

What would a vaccine rollout mean for healthcare comms?

Early this week, pharmaceuticals giant Pfizer and BioNTech announced the impending development of a Covid vaccine that was more than 90 percent effective. Governments around the world rejoiced at the news and began to procure millions of doses, while stocks soared upon announcement of the news.

Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said in a statement: "We are one step closer to potentially providing people around the world with a much-needed breakthrough to help bring an end to this global pandemic. This is a first but critical step in our work to deliver a safe and effective vaccine."

But rolling out a Covid vaccine is not as simple as it should be. The politicisation of the race to find a vaccine has compounded the news cycle with the world's hegemonies jostling to be first in line.

Plus, the wave of misinformation around Covid is also projected to aggravate the matter, with science itself being politicised in the conversation about health. Some even project that the anti-vaxxer movement could indicate hesitance towards a vaccine, as well as a dip in confidence following US president Donald Trump's 'interference' with the vaccination approval process.

In Asia, trust, transparency and logistics are main issues brought up by healthcare PR experts. "Introduction and rollout of Covid-19 vaccine will be one of the biggest public health initiatives in history," says Priyanka Bajpai, regional head at SPAG Group.

"This also means portraying full transparency from these companies during rollout, to build trust for all stakeholders. Key focus for these companies would be on 'science communications', wherein they are able to demystify the science of vaccine and align credible voices who can provide factual and correct information to public."

Bajpai adds that PR partners need to be able to build a multi-channel, multi-stakeholder communications campaign that can support introduction of these vaccines in Asia.

"Foreseeing the sensitivity of topic and public sentiment worldwide, it is equally important to conduct a real-time listening and analysis of conversations in parallel with digital and social spaces. This exercise will also act as an early warning system for any potential crises which can be mitigated timely and appropriately," she says.

Emma Thompson, founder and managing partner at Spurwing Communications, stresses the importance of transparency during the vaccine rollout process. "By prioritising transparency amongst healthcare authorities and pharmaceutical companies, while navigating regulatory restrictions, we can play a role in ensuring the vaccination process – and its benefit to public health – is clearly understood," she says.

One area that communicators will need to be aware about, she adds, is public trust around companies and governments offering equal access and safe rollouts of the vaccine towards all communities.

"This will be on top of the fundamental challenge of how inconsistent infrastructure in the region will impact any rollout—managing the distribution to the region's many rural communities, where healthcare clinics are few and far between, and ensuring no one is left behind is just one of the challenges ahead," she says.

The pandemic has shone a light on the extremities of inequality in the region, and this can prove problematic when vaccines are being distributed. In India, for instance, poorer communities have had difficulties gaining access to healthcare with public hospitals being underfunded and overburdened.

Saskia Kendall, head of health at Sandpiper Communications, says that for vaccines to have an impact on the pandemic, a majority of a population must be vaccinated, so trust and confidence is critical.

"Health literacy in Asia is variable and over the last five years there has been increasing levels of mistrust of vaccines due to concerns about safety and a growing anti-vaxxers movement on social media. Spiritual and cultural beliefs also pose a barrier to vaccine receptivity. The speed with which Covid vaccines have been developed also heighten these concerns," she says.

Not only must communications agencies be prepared for delivering information in an accessible way, Kendall adds that it's equally important to develop comms strategies that recognise "complex motivations and emotions" involved in the decision-making of individuals in the region. On top of that, agencies must look beyond engagement on traditional, digital and social media towards other community touchpoints such as primary care clinics and community screening activities.

She also touches on the potential logistical nightmare in Asia–representing two thirds of the world's population—following the vaccine approval. "Manufacturing and supplying over four billion vaccines will take time and resource. Difficult decisions on a regional and market level will need be to be made on who should be prioritised and these decisions will be under close scrutiny, as will access and pricing," she says.

"Working with stakeholders on rollout plans and developing effective communications and issues management strategies will be critical. Recognising issues in advance and planning effectively will ensure that trust and confidence can be safeguarded."

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