By Philip Ball
As scientists work to create a vaccine against COVID-19, a small but fervent anti-vaccination movement is marshalling against it. Campaigners are seeding outlandish narratives: they falsely say that coronavirus vaccines will be used to implant microchips into people, for instance, and falsely claim that a woman who took part in a UK vaccine trial died. In April, some carried placards with anti-vaccine slogans at rallies in California to protest against the lockdown. Last week, a now-deleted YouTube video promoting wild conspiracy theories about the pandemic and asserting (without evidence) that vaccines would “kill millions” received more than 8 million views.
It’s not known how many people would actually refuse a COVID-19 vaccine — and general support for vaccines remains high. But some researchers studying vaccine-opposition movements say they’re concerned that the messages could undermine efforts to establish herd immunity to the new coronavirus. Online opposition to vaccines has rapidly pivoted to talk of the pandemic, says Neil Johnson, a physicist at George Washington University in Washington DC, who is studying the campaigners’ tactics. “For a lot of these groups, it’s all about COVID now,” he says.
Groups opposing vaccines are small in size, but their online-communications strategy is worryingly effective and far-reaching, a report from Johnson’s team suggests. Before the SARS-CoV-2 virus emerged, Johnson’s team began mapping out a network of views on vaccination, on Facebook. They investigated more than 1,300 pages, followed by about 85 million individuals.
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