Even amid tight supplies of COVID-19 vaccines, a striking aspect of the first month of rollout is the widespread resistance to immunization despite a pandemic that has claimed millions of lives.
The Pew Research Center released data in early December showing that while the share of Americans who said they would be vaccinated had grown, it had only reached around 60%. A few weeks later, the Kaiser Family Foundation reported that 27% of respondents said they “probably or definitely would not get a COVID-19 vaccine even if it were available for free and deemed safe by scientists.” A recent poll reported by The Wall Street Journal found that 27% of New York state residents say they still don’t plan to get the COVID-19 vaccine. And the United States is not alone. Polls have found that as much as 60% of the French population does not want to be vaccinated. These figures are especially worrisome since experts have estimated life will not go back to something like normal until 70%, or even 80% of the population is immune.
Those who resist immunization have mentioned several reasons for their stance. Politics and some minority groups’ skepticism of medical science, arising from a history of disparate treatment and unethical research, play a role. So does the rationale among some younger candidates that because they are more likely to experience mild or asymptomatic COVID-19, getting vaccinated is not worth the trouble or the risk of even relatively minor side effects. To them, the chance that they may spread the deadly coronavirus to more vulnerable populations is someone else’s problem.
Authorities in North America and Europe, in particular, are fighting this tide of anti-vaccination sentiment as the death toll and hospital caseloads mount. There is even a startlingly high level of vaccine reluctance evident among medical professionals who are on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19. It is entirely irrational, but nonetheless real.
One possible factor that I have not seen mentioned – but which may deserve to be part of the conversation – is the role of an often cynical, years-long campaign to raise suspicions about genetically modified agricultural products. This campaign had roots in European protectionism and global anti-corporatist and socialist economic theory. Those involved told consumers that they should demand to know when their foods might contain, or even have been in contact with, genetically modified organisms. The implication was that ingesting GMOs might be bad for you and the people you love.
For a long time, America was a notable holdout. Our government policy was that the final product should be tested for safety; how it was made was not relevant. But in 2016 the U.S. government under the Obama administration caved, with a law requiring labeling of foodstuffs containing GMOs. The Trump administration published final rules implementing the legislation two years later. Those rules injected at least a modicum of sense into the discussion by eliminating the requirement for labeling when the GMO in question was just a source for a highly refined ingredient. For example, high fructose corn syrup from GMO corn might be used as a sweetener in candy or soft drinks. The rules do not require labeling those products if there is no detectable modified genetic material in the final product.
Bizarrely – but emblematic of how modern managers sometimes cower in the face of social media onslaughts – leading food companies argued against excluding such products from labeling requirements. The exclusion would “confuse consumers, erode trust in brands and the technology and encourage further polarizing activism about what is perceived to be information ‘hidden’ by brands,” the Grocery Manufacturers Association wrote, in comments reported by industry publication FoodNavigator-USA.
“GMA does not expect that consumers will understand or believe the concept that an ingredient starting from a bioengineered ear of corn is not bioengineered after it has been refined,” the trade group said.
Facts, science and safety were irrelevant. Food labeling requirements were ultimately driven by an uninformed online mob, guided by the agendas of those who inspired it.
So, a few years later, along comes SARS-CoV-2, the new coronavirus. The first (and at this writing, the only) two vaccines approved for use against it in this country were both created through a form of bioengineering. The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines use messenger RNA, or mRNA, to instruct our cells to make a protein found on the coronavirus spikes. The protein, harmless in itself, triggers the production of antibodies. These antibodies can recognize the coronavirus when it comes along, producing immunity.
This technology is one of the most promising frontiers of medical science, offering not only vaccines, but also avenues for a new range of immunotherapies and treatment of genetic conditions such as sickle cell disease. Scientists have studied it for years in clinical trial settings. Yet it is hardly surprising that a significant slice of the public is suspicious of any lab-created product that uses genetic instructions to accomplish its goal. The benefits of using mRNA, like the benefits that genetic engineering offers to agriculture, may be ultimately compromised by virulent ignorance bolstered by cynical deception.
In fact, when a large slice of the public shies away from a vaccine that will save millions of lives and countless livelihoods, we can say with some confidence that they already have been.
Many people, including me, have said for years that GMO labeling laws are not about empowering consumers, since there is nothing relevant over which to empower them. (Do we care if the eggs that go into our baked goods had brown shells or white shells? We don’t label our breads to tell us.) The labeling laws are, instead, a way to stigmatize GMO products. Now we may pay a real price in public health for having humored the exhortations that a little more labeling could do no harm.