23:56 GMT27 November 2020
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    The British government has announced that pharmaceutical company Janssen is set to begin trials of a COVID-19 vaccine in the UK. The Belgian firm, owned by US-based multinational giant Johnson & Johnson, is the third potential vaccine to enter clinical trials in the nation.

    The trial is set to include 30,000 people globally but will begin in the UK, as another vaccine is introduced. Has the government done enough to calm the public’s nerves over the rapidly developed coronavirus vaccines?

    Dr David Comerford of the University of Stirling shares his expert opinion on the behavioural science behind the general public’s attitude toward vaccines and medical treatment. 

    Sputnik: Do you think the media has been responsible in their reporting of vaccine developments?

    David Comerford: I think there are a couple of goals that anyone would have in discussing the vaccine and the media are the face of communicating this stuff. But one thing is that 2020 has been a really rough year for people, an enormous upset was caused; in terms of loss of life, in terms of loss of social opportunities and in terms of loss of employment opportunities. One goal that anyone has in their conversations is just to enhance the mood of those around them. With the first news breaking about the vaccine, I think there was a sort of gushing enthusiasm. An example that comes to mind, the front page of the Economist last week, shows a dark tunnel with a light at the end of it, in which there is a syringe. I think that's indicative of the tone that the media has been in adopting. It's one of: "There is hope". And that's the big message to get out there. And I think that in itself, is serving a purpose for people who are feeling despair, especially around the Northern Hemisphere, where the winters are closing in. It's looking as though this is not going to be a Christmas like any other. It's just very helpful to have some good news coming to light around the [COVID-19 pandemic]. 

    The second part of the media's responsibility is to accurately convey the state of knowledge that we have and there will always be games played in that respect to try and clickbait and just win audiences by sensationalising things, or framing them in a way that's, while technically true, ramps up some aspect of the story in order to hit on a niche that appeals to readers. That's something that we're used to from other domains of reporting in the media. So the question of responsibility. Let's put it this way, I haven't seen anything egregious, but then I'm not monitoring the media in a comprehensive way. I don't doubt that there's maybe ambiguous and perhaps self-serving stuff put out there by certain media outlets.

    A woman holds a small bottle labeled with a Coronavirus COVID-19 Vaccine sticker and a medical syringe in front of displayed UK flag in this illustration taken, October 30, 2020
    A woman holds a small bottle labeled with a "Coronavirus COVID-19 Vaccine" sticker and a medical syringe in front of displayed UK flag in this illustration taken, October 30, 2020

    Sputnik: Many who are willing to take this vaccine, but there's a healthy amount of scepticism from some corners of the internet and some within the media about the idea of getting enough people to take the vaccine. How can the government encourage people to actually take the vaccine when it becomes available?

    David Comerford: I think the talk last week by the deputy chief medical officer was spot on in communicating that due processes will be put in place around this; there'll be no shortcuts taken. The deputy chief medical officer, Professor Van Tom, said in a press briefing last week that he had already had a conversation with his mother, in which he encouraged her to go get the vaccine as soon as it's released for distribution and there's one element of that is, it won't be released for distribution until all due checks have been put in place. So he is reassuring, not just his own mother, but the entire nation that there'll be no shortcuts taken around the safety of this. I guess there are many ways that he could have chosen to communicate that message. But he invoked what's called the 'mum test'. If he's willing to put a mother who presumably he loves very much, and who, as an older person, is especially at risk from the coronavirus. If he's taking that specific case and recommending to her, given his very expert knowledge around the procedures that will be applied to ensuring that the vaccine is safe for distribution, then I think we can all take heart that he's not going to take greater risks with his own mother's life than would be appropriate. So we should embrace that message as indicative that when the vaccine gets released onto the market, due checks will have been put in place.

    Sputnik: What is the level of vaccine scepticism currently? How could that affect the implementation of a vaccine?

    David Comerford: We live in an age where the suspicion and mistrust and misinformation around vaccination is especially prevalent. The internet has created these echo chambers in which it's quite easy for people to be misled around the science of vaccination. And unfortunately, there have been instances where scientists have engaged in academic fraud around the risks posed by vaccination that looms large in the public's consciousness. And so I think it's really important that the authorities give us a really carefully measured message around the risks and benefits of vaccinating.

    The views and opinions expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.

    COVID-19, vaccine
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