The anti-vax movement is using growing hesitation around the coronavirus vaccine to attract more people

coronavirus vaccine trial injection shot patient covid 19
In this May 4, 2020 photo from the University of Maryland School of Medicine, the first patient enrolled in Pfizer's COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine clinical trial receives an injection.

University of Maryland School of Medicine/AP Photo

  • Some recent surveys suggest Americans, especially young ones, are wary of a coronavirus vaccine.

  • The anti-vaccine movement is capitalizing on this skepticism, including at a recent in-person conference held in North Carolina.

  • Top scientific experts have said an effective, widely-used vaccine is the "only hope" at eliminating the coronavirus and achieving herd immunity quickly.

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As scientists around the world race to develop a vaccine to fight the novel coronavirus, some Americans are still skeptical.

A poll published May 27 found that only about half of Americans would get a coronavirus vaccine, should one become available, while 31% were unsure. One in five said they'd flat-out refuse, according the poll of 1,056 adults from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

Many of the undecided or uninterested haven't previously been active in the anti-vaccine movement. Rather, skeptics seem to be voicing hesitance around this vaccine in particular, including related its rush to development, fears that it will be forced upon unwilling citizens, and growing distrust of mainstream medicine and media. Staunch anti-vaxxers are taking note.


Anti-vaccine sentiments spread at a recent nonconventional medicine conference

About 200 nonconventional medicine practitioners, researchers, anti-vaccine advocates, and members of the public from all over the globe convened for a conference in North Carolina over Memorial Day weekend.

Called the Advanced Medicine Conference, the event marketed itself to people "who are seeking the truth, who wish to learn the secret to not only achieving optimum health but who want to know the secret to all aspects of life, who are on the evolutionary path to greater awareness and insight and wish to take the next leap forward," according to its website.

One of its leaders was osteopathic physician and conspiracy theorist Dr. Rashid Buttar.

Rashid Buttar hugging at conference
Dr. Rashid Buttar hugging an attendee at the Advanced Medicine Conference in Charlotte.

Andie Rea

The speakers promoted alternative medicine practices, such as restorative breathing and herbal medicine, and expressed their concerns about the safety of a possible coronavirus vaccine.

"They are rushing the science. You do not rush science. That is a recipe for disaster," Del Bigtree, CEO of the anti-vaccination group Informed Consent Action Network, told Business Insider Today from Charlotte. "It has to be just like every drug, two to three years long, at least preferably five years."

Hope Ransom, an attendee, told BI Today she was concerned about the prospect of being forced to get a vaccine. "We are individuals that should be in charge of making our own decisions," she said. "So if you want a vaccine, you take a vaccine, but don't hold me reliable for what it is you choose to do to your body."

Their concerns mirror some of those voiced in a petition that, as of the evening of May 28, had close to 560,000 signatures. "The so-called 'public health experts' have gotten it wrong many times during the current crisis," it says. "We should not, therefore, allow their opinions to rush decision-makers into policies regarding vaccination."

The movement has also gained traction through social media

Prior to the conference, the anti-vaccine message was already gaining traction. One recent study showed that anti-vaccine views are growing explosively on social media and could become dominant within the next decade.

Bigtree, who hosts the weekly anti-vaccine online talk show "The Highwire," said he's seen his audience grow about 25-fold over the past three months.

And Buttar, who told BI Today vaccines are "absolutely, categorically, not based on science," has seen his videos incorrectly claiming the coronavirus is linked to 5G technology spread far and wide. They're repeatedly removed by Facebook and YouTube for spreading misinformation.

Some conference-goers told BI Today they attended because they wanted to hear and meet him.

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Scientists are seen working on a potential vaccine for COVID-19 in Keele, Britain.

Carl Recine/Reuters

A safe and widely-implemented vaccine is "the one great hope" of eliminating the virus

Despite growing skepticism, top medical experts remain united in their message: Until an effective vaccine is developed and widely distributed, the coronavirus will continue to upend life as we knew it.

The World Health Organization's Executive Director of Health Emergencies Mike Ryan has called it the "one great hope" at potentially eliminating the novel coronavirus.

Without a widely-used vaccine, it could take four or five years to develop the type of "herd immunity" that could control the outbreak, since some data suggests less than 10% of the population has been exposed to the virus.

Waiting that long means millions more people could die in the meantime, as there is also no effective treatment available.

And while vaccine testing and development has been fast-tracked, its acceleration isn't at the expense of safety but rather money, White House top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci said on NPR. Researchers are investing in multiple stages of the research process at once when they'd typically have to complete one before moving onto the next.

"The risk is not to the patient because the safety and the scientific integrity is intact," Fauci said. "The risk is to the investment and we feel that it's important enough to make those investments in order to save months."

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