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A group of representatives of the anti-vaccine movement protesting in Buenos Aires, Argentina
Alessio Perrone

How Anti-Vaxxers Will Try To Sabotage The COVID-19 Vaccine


MILAN — Now that Pfizer and Moderna appear to have viable COVID-19 vaccines, a range of legitimate questions are being posed — cost, supply, logistics — in order to carry out what we hope would become the fastest and widest vaccination effort in history.

But three days ago on Facebook, Italian Parliament member and political provocateur Gianluigi Paragone was focused on other questions: What were the potentially ugly side effects of the vaccine? Wasn't this simply a profit play by the pharmaceutical industry?

Paragone didn't have to wait long to get answers, as many of the hundreds of comments that followed amounted to rhetorical red meat of what has become known globally as the anti-vaxxer movement. Users warned that the vaccine would change our DNA; that it was poison; that it would help install microchips in our heads.

It is telling, and ominous, how quickly such a message stuck. The anti-vaxxers have mastered the tools of social media, spreading conspiracy theories as its own kind of digital virus. Over the past five years, basic scientific facts are disputed by a growing number of our neighbors. That vaccines remain one of the most important scientific discoveries ever, largely responsible for the longer life expectancy and public health gains of the last century, is now an open question for more and more people.

Until now, anti-vaxxers have been blamed for a few pockets of outbreaks of diseases that had long been vanquished by vaccines, most notably measles. But now we may be faced with a much greater risk: that the public mistrust that has flowed from between the anti-mask and COVID-deniers dovetails with the anti-vaxxer movement — and potentially undermines the global vaccination campaign against coronavirus.

The anti-vaxxers meld in with other conspiracy theory proponents — Photo: Sachelle Babbar/ZUMA

We are still likely months away from the full-fledged implementation, but in the latest opinion polls, only about one-half of the respondents in France and Italy and 40% in Germany said that they would get the shot.

The Lancet reports on a new study by the Centre for Countering Digital Hate that blames social media companies for allowing the anti-vaccine movement to remain on their platforms. The report's authors noted that social media accounts held by so-called anti-vaxxers have increased their following by at least 7 million people since 2019, and 31 million people follow anti-vaccine groups on Facebook.

There are legitimate reasons to be cautious about the new vaccines for now — for one, they still have to get safety approval from institutions before we even weigh our options. But spreading public distrust risks jeopardizing our chances to eradicate COVID-19, which depends on a sizable part of the population getting vaccinated.

A decade into the social media age, we are reminded again that digital information is both the poison and the cure — and a vaccine against its worst effects will take years to discover.

Careful of those hands
Carl-Johan Karlsson

Virus Alert, Protect Your Body And Computer

Before COVID-19, when we heard the word "virus," most of us thought about our computers. Cyber-security terminology has borrowed from the biological world because of the similar ways that viruses spread and can be combated. Both rely on hosts for transmission and can be prevented by immunity, which for a computer comes in the form of antivirus software rather than the injection of a vaccine. Perhaps the most important similarity is that computer viruses also spread surreptitiously, often causing serious damage before being detected. In other words, both are pretty scary.

Although the term computer virus was coined already in the 1980s, it was popularized the following decade by a swelling genre of cyber movies (remember Hackers?) as well as the first real-life public malware scare in 1992 when the Michelangelo virus — named after the famous painter with the same March 6 birthday — spread to some 5 million computers, mainly through floppy disks.

Of course, talking about computer viruses when a real-life pandemic is still wreaking havoc across the world may raise eyebrows. Yet, one clear side effect of the current health crisis is that more and more of our lives, particularly working lives, are moving online. The cyber-security risks, for example, in the proliferation of Zoom and other video conferences puts everything from our images to our passwords at risk of exploitation.

As our economy becomes more digitized, faceless and harder to understand, the stakes are bound to keep rising. Yet, advances in computing could help us learn lessons to fight both health and cyber threats, as pointed out in a recent article in Welcome to the Jungle about those combating viruses in our computers and our bodies: "With both disciplines plotting similar paths toward data-driven threat response, there is surely considerable benefit for both in gaining a greater understanding of each other's strategies, successes, and challenges."

Nobody right now expects either virtual or biological viruses to be eradicated any time soon, and we've learned that our fate remains largely in our own hands — which you should wash regularly, and use to change your passwords at least once a month.