Harvard Business Review: Why Businesses Must Help Build Trust in a Covid-19 Vaccine

This article was published by the Harvard Business Review

by Rebecca Weintraub, Julie Rosenberg, Kenneth Rabin and Scott C. Ratzan

Vaccine experts around the world are justifiably concerned by the lack of scientific data on the “Sputnik V” vaccine for Covid-19 that Russia recently approved after less than two months of human testing on a non-randomized group of 39 patients. But they are also worried about the potentially chilling effect its possible failure could have on public acceptance of whichever of the dozens of other Covid-19 vaccines in the pipeline eventually proves safe and effective. Business leaders should be concerned as well and must begin to play a central role now in building public confidence in vaccines.

Even safe and effective vaccines only work to protect the population if enough people are immunized. Unfortunately, there is already ample public opinion data to suggest that, egged on by anti-vaccine activists, large numbers of people won’t accept immunization. A third of Americans currently say they have no interest in taking a Covid-19 vaccine if one were available, even at little or no cost. Similar sentiments have been expressed in the UK, France, and other countries.

We cannot establish the level of “herd immunity” needed to contain the Covid-19 pandemic unless enough people accept a vaccine. Leaders have advocated that advancing health literacy — the degree to which people have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services to make appropriate health decisions — is crucial to building and maintaining public confidence in vaccines. Recognizing the importance of this effort, some large employers — including MastercardApple and Google — are communicating with their employees that the full reopening of their workplaces depends on the success of a vaccine for Covid-19. We urge other businesses to join such efforts to dispel fear, mistrust, misinformation, and disinformation about Covid-19 vaccines.

Evidence from the U.S. Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention’s Epidemic Intelligence Service clearly shows that a pandemic is as much a communications emergency as it is a medical crisis. The World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) Increasing Vaccination Model acknowledges that people’s thoughts and feelings about vaccines — including their perceived risk, worry, confidence, trust, and safety concerns — can reduce their motivation to get vaccinated, compounding the practical issues and challenges to expanding access to and uptake of the services that provide them. In 2019, the WHO cited vaccine hesitancy — indecision about accepting a vaccination — as one of the top 10 threats to global health. The Vaccine Confidence Project continues to detect factors underlying vaccine hesitancy, and overcoming such hesitancy requires tailoring solutions to the roots of mistrust.

Vaccine literacy for Covid-19 vaccines will require more extensive efforts than many other health literacy campaigns because of the complex situation that is likely to occur. Early clinical trials in the West and Far East indicate that first-generation Covid-19 vaccines are likely to have mid-range efficacy. (On June 30, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration shared that it would approve a Covid-19 vaccine that can prevent or reduce severe disease in at least 50% of the people who get it.) It’s also likely that there will be multiple vaccines used around the world, including some that require multiple doses and some that may be better suited for different populations.

Consequently, even before a vaccine is approved, national and state leaders must engage a network of champions to locally communicate effectively with the public about risks, benefits, allocation and targeting, and availability. This is where the business community can play an important role.

The world’s biggest employers should immediately support — with their money and brands —common-sense information campaigns that promote vaccine acceptance and defuse anti-vaccine sentiments. In order to ensure widespread public acceptance as soon as vaccines have cleared all the appropriate scientific hurdles, those campaigns must be launched now. In addition, the business community should advise, partner, and invest in the development and deployment of technologies to measure and verify vaccine coverage: the estimated percentage of people around the world who have received specific vaccines.

Individual companies don’t have to act alone. They can join forces by working with international business coalitions such as the recently launched CONVINCE initiative, which will work with governments and NGOs to develop, implement, and evaluate global, country, and audience-specific campaigns to advance vaccine literacy. (Three of us — Scott, Rebecca, and Ken — are involved in CONVINCE.)

Creating safe and effective vaccines and making them widely available in 2021 are only half the battle. The other half is getting the vast majority of people around the world to accept them. That will not happen unless businesses around the world begin now to support efforts at the global, national, and local levels to persuade people they should get vaccinated.