This article was published on March 13, 2021 in the Journal of Health Communication and was co-authored by Heidi J. Larson, Nancy Lee, Kenneth H. Rabin, Lauren Rauh & Scott C.
This paper describes the inception and evolution to date of CONVINCE – COVID-19 New Vaccine Information, Communication and Engagement – a rapidly expanding, voluntary global initiative to promote the use of effective public communications and engagement to build vaccine literacy and expedite immunization programs to protect communities against the COVID-19 Pandemic caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2).
CONVINCE emerged from initial conversations among a few people who for some time have studied issues affecting vaccine acceptance.
Driven by well-funded, well-organized, tech-savvy vaccine opponents, hesitancy has spread so widely in recent years that in 2019 the World Health Organization labeled it as one of the ten most important threats to global health.
CONVINCE stemmed directly from our work during the first stage of the COVID-19 Pandemic. In early March 2020, some of us wrote a widely circulated article in the US National Academy of Medicine’s Perspectives called “COVID-19: An Urgent Call for Coordinated, Trusted Sources to Tell Everyone What They Need to Know and Do”. Its key message was that, “History tells us that an informed, the activated population is vital to protecting the public’s health.” Another of us was putting the final touches on the manuscript of a book called Stuck: How Vaccine Rumors Start – And Why They Don’t Go Away, which was published later in the year and has become widely accepted as the standard source of information on the triggers of vaccine hesitancy.
By late March, two things had become clear to us. The first was that a coordinated, expedited and well-funded scientific effort had led to a prompt elucidation of the genetic code for SARS-Cov-2 and was likely to lead to the rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines. The second was that the highly polarized and political environment in many countries was equally likely to preclude the development of coordinated, trusted sources of information to inspire people to adopt basic behaviors that could slow the spread of COVID-19, or ultimately to accept a new vaccine against it.
The specific statement that challenged us to look for new communication solutions came from Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. On 30 March, 2020, he told journalists that a vaccine would be “the ultimate game changer” against COVID-19, and that based on the initial research he had seen this “game changer” could be in play within a time frame of 12–18 months. By December 2020, while Dr. Fauci still saw vaccines as a game changer, he started to call out some of the hurdles – including the risk that not enough people will take it.
We see four interrelated communication factors that could be obstacles to achieving the potential “game change” that COVID-19 vaccines could allow: (1) The lack of public trust in government information about COVID-19, (2) childhood vaccine opponents pivoting quickly and aggressively to spread disinformation about potential COVID-19 vaccines; (3) denialism that the COVID virus and disease actually exist; and (4) inadequate investment in communications programs to prepare communities to accept a COVID-19 vaccine based on social research to inform the development of messages and identification of relevant and influential messengers to explain in basic terms how these vaccines worked.