From lockdown to furlough, the Covid policies of governments around the world have split public opinion at every stage. Anecdotally, we have known for some time that the vaccination programme is one of the most fiercely divisive issues of all. But without understanding what motivates the different factions, building the case for vaccine confidence has proved challenging.
Last month, a major international survey commissioned by the award-winning Real Chemistry offered the clearest window yet into the attitudes surrounding the vaccine roll-out. Polling over 7,000 people across seven countries, the data not only identifies the groups for and against the vaccination programme, but offers deeper insights into their decision drivers.
At the keynote session of the 2021 PharmaComms Conference, W2O’s Annalise Coady examined the survey’s findings and explored how the industry can use them to achieve more effective messaging and build vaccine confidence.
Encouragingly, the UK has the largest pro-vaccine group (at 77%), which dwarfed both France (43%) and Japan (45%). In recent months, too, 35% more UK people were willing to take the vaccine. Coady felt this was down to the clear lines of communication: “Clearly, the effects of lockdown are getting to people and they’re very keen to get back to normality. But the amount of information – not just from No.10, but also from the pharma companies – has had some really interesting outcomes in terms of people’s understandings and perceptions around the vaccine.”
However, she said, there is no room for complacency, with over 50% of respondents in four of the seven surveyed countries having changed their stance over the last couple of months. As such, Coady felt it was vital that pharmacomms professionals learn to “continually watch the shifting conversation, so we can target the right messages, in the right way, with the right messenger”.
Moving on to examine decision drivers, Coady first considered what the Real Chemistry survey told us about the motivations for ‘pro’ vaccine groups. Self-interest and trust in medical experts were the main driver of uptake, explained Coady, especially amongst older people. But, she stressed, with scientists and pharmaceutical companies ranked as the two most trusted sources of information across all countries, it was vital that expert voices continued to provide reassurance. “There’s a huge opportunity here for pharma to step up, fill the vacuum and build trust in vaccines. What we’re seeing here is that pharma is trusted, and people are wanting information from the likes of Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Moderna. Experts are trusted.”
Next up for analysis were the ‘middling’ decision drivers that could either encourage or deter people from accepting a vaccine. Coady noted that many respondents demanded proven reliability, and pointed out that the vaccine roll-out was likely to be more challenging as younger groups worry more about potential side effects than the risk of Covid. To counteract this, she said, pharmacomms experts need to come forward with hard facts, while the government provides an on-going commentary. “People are looking for the real-world evidence.”
In weeks since the conference, this has been in evidence from the pausing of AstraZeneca vaccine in over twenty European countries due to health concerns despite the data disputing the claims. In response AstraZeneca released the data around how many blood clots have occurred from the vaccine. Only with reinforcement from the World Health Organisation and European Medicines Agency who announced later on in the week that they consider the vaccine to be safe and any side-effects in line with expectations caused countries to un-pause their rollouts. This also reinforces the need to think globally as this disruption could impact the public’s confidence around the world.
Meanwhile, with 48% of UK respondents having a preference for one vaccine brand over another, Coady advised pharma firms to communicate their product’s efficacy to the public by contextualising hard-to-grasp clinical reports. “One thing that’s really interesting from the communications perspective is that people are starting to recognise the pharma brands. That’s really the first time we’ve ever seen that within the UK in terms of people having brand recognition for medicine.”
Perhaps most important of all, argued Coady, was for the industry to address the decision drivers that strongly discourage people from vaccination. With freedom of choice a central anti-vaxxer argument – often fuelled by fake news and online conspiracy theories – “it really does demand for us to continue to educate and engage with people with trustworthy information”.
Meanwhile, with low trust in politicians, Coady reiterated her point that pharma’s expert voices must speak up. “The groups surveyed said scientists and pharma were where they wanted to get their information. We have an opportunity with the pharmacomms community to bridge the gap, work with the scientists and deliver a message of confidence to those that need it.”
As for the BAME community – where trust is reported as particularly low – Coady felt it was vital that pro-vaccine messaging came from the right source. “It’s all about the messenger, looking for the right people in terms of the local community, people that can engage and educate.
In conclusion, Coady acknowledged the risk of ‘vaccine information fatigue’. But she stressed that continuing the dialogue as the pandemic evolved was vital for the vaccination programme’s long-term success. “We need to get going, we need to educate people about why the vaccine regimes may change due to new mutations, about the better science and technology coming through. This is our moment, and we’ve got an opportunity over the next year to bring the world back to normality, using emotive, data-driven, truthful stories that impact the communities where we need to impact most.”