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The extent to which COVID-19 vaccination rates and vaccine hesitancy are associated with levels of online vaccine misinformation.

The rapid outbreak of the novel coronavirus, namely severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus-2 (SARS-CoV-2), the causative agent of the current coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, has caused more than 6, 24 million victims worldwide. Scientists have worked hard to develop effective vaccines, several of which have received Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) from global regulators. Subsequently, vaccination programs were launched in many countries around the world.

Study: Online misinformation is linked to hesitancy and refusal of early vaccination against COVID-19. Image credit: Lightspring/Shutterstock

context

According to a survey conducted between February and March 2021, a high level of vaccine hesitancy, or 40-47% of American adults, was observed. However, it is important that about 60-70% of the population is immunized with a COVID-19 vaccine to obtain herd immunity. Several studies have indicated the uneven distribution of vaccinated and unvaccinated groups. In June 2021, an increased number of COVID-19 cases were observed in poorly vaccinated US states due to the emergence of the Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2. Scientists said these outbreaks would prolong the pandemic for a longer period.

Researchers have reported vaccine hesitancy against COVID-19, which includes people who are vaccine reluctant and causing vaccine delay and those who refuse to be vaccinated. Interestingly, in the United States, the highest rate of vaccine hesitancy was found among African Americans, conservatives, and women. Scientists have identified factors linked to COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy, such as education, employment and income.

Several studies have also shown that spreading misinformation about the vaccine on social media may have fueled negative opinion about the COVID-19 vaccine. Some of the misinformation circulating included an incorrect report that vaccines could genetically alter the population and contain microchips linked to the 5G network. Scientists have expressed the importance of understanding how misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine has impacted vaccine uptake rates.

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A new study

A new study published in Scientific Reports determined the link between vaccine hesitancy, vaccination rates, and online misinformation in the United States. The authors of this study obtained relevant data from Facebook, Twitter and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The scientists used Granger causality analysis to determine the directional link between online misinformation and vaccine hesitancy.

The current study provided the reasons why certain geographic regions had reduced vaccination rates against COVID-19. The researchers pointed out that one of the main reasons for vaccine hesitancy is online misinformation. They took into account the variability between US regions with high and low levels of misinformation and reported that about 20% of the decrease in vaccination rate between states and 67% of the increase in vaccine hesitancy between Democratic counties were associated with the prevalence of misinformation.

In light of these findings, there is a high likelihood of prevalence of the SARS-CoV-2 epidemic in many parts of the United States. There is an urgent need to counter misinformation to increase the rate of vaccination against COVID-19. Scientists said it is highly likely that people who are hesitant to get vaccinated are prone to spreading misinformation. Because vaccine hesitancy and misinformation are driven by the public, it is important to understand their ecological and individual relationships. The authors of this study failed to eliminate confounding factors; therefore, uncertainties about casual linkages remain, and these should be addressed in future studies.

Scientists said that public opinion is sensitive to the information ecosystem, and in modern times, a variety of information tends to spread rapidly. This study indicates that although social media users do not represent the general public, they play a significant role in driving vaccine hesitancy through the lateral flow of misinformation. The scientists analyzed the effects at the group level and found that the results were true for two geographic scales.

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Limits

The authors of this study indicated several limitations which include not estimating social media exposure and also the fact that the conclusions are based on data averaged over geographic regions. Additionally, the researchers believe that their source-based approach to determining misinformation at scale may not have included all misleading and incorrect information related to COVID-19 vaccines. They might also have included some unreliable sources in this study. Another limitation of this study is its short study period. The researchers also said other factors may influence levels of vaccine hesitancy, including the availability and accessibility of COVID-19 vaccines, mortality rates and appropriate vaccine safety documents.

Conclusion

The current study found a correlation between the information ecosystem that contains false claims about COVID-19 vaccines and vaccine uptake based on geographic regions. This study underscored the importance of valid information that could greatly benefit the public.

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