The United States is potentially days away from approving the first round of coronavirus vaccines just nine months after the global pandemic ripped through every state, claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and crippled the once robust economy.
And yet, millions have vowed not to take the fast-developed two-shot vaccines despite 95% efficacy rates from pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and BioNTech and another from Moderna. Why the hesitancy and how long could the COVID-19 crisis continue as a result?
"People are wary of misinformation and don't really know who to trust anymore. The development of the vaccines at this rapid pace is unprecedented, and there is a significant amount of fear and confusion," Dr. Attila Hertelendy, a Florida-based expert in biomedicine and emergency and disaster management, told Fox News. "Many are of the mindset, 'Let's see if there are any side effects or anyone dies.'"
In addition to Pfizer and Moderna's candidates, dozens of other vaccines are under trial right now, with scientists saying many others are showing promise. One trial was halted last month after a candidate suffered an "adverse reaction" but it has since resumed.
"Many medical products come with potential side effects or risks," noted Julie Swann, a professor and department head of industrial and systems engineering at North Carolina State University, who served as a science adviser for the H1N1 pandemic response at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2009. "We are balancing those against the risk of not taking the vaccine, knowing that SARS-CoV-2 has a high infectivity rate and a risk of severe outcomes."
According to a Gallup poll conducted in October, 58% of Americans said they would get the COVID-19 vaccine with the "speed of development" the most frequently referenced reason for refusing it. The results show an uptick from September, when 50 percent of Americans said they would get the injection. Gallup attributed the spike in willingness among Democrats.
But that still leaves some 42 percent – roughly 158 million – potentially avoiding the chance to be immunized.
The results of a STAT-Harris Poll released in November highlighted that 6 in 10 Americans said they are "somewhat or very likely" to get the COVID-19 vaccine if doing so "would lower the risk of becoming infected by half."
A Pew Research study from September echoed that about half of U.S. adults would "definitely or probably get a vaccine" if it were immediately available. However, this was actually a significant decrease from polling conducted in May, which showed that some 72% were willing to be immunized. And just 21% percent said they would "definitely" be vaccinated, a sharp fall from four months earlier when around 50% said they would.
Pew underscored that some 77% of Americans believed that the vaccine would be approved in the U.S. "before its safety and effectiveness are fully understood," with 78% also declaring that their number one worry was that vaccine development would move too fast without adherence to safety precautions.
Dubbed "Operation Warp Speed," the mission to develop a vaccine has indeed happened in unprecedented time. Medical officials have said they plan to start immunizing within 24 hours of the FDA issuing emergency approval, with 35 million to 40 million doses ready for distribution this month.
Shannon Kroner, a clinical psychologist and executive director of Freedom of Religion-United Solutions, said much of the apprehension stems from "the risk of injury and lack of liability that comes with vaccination."
"Vaccine manufacturers have not been liable for injury or death since the passing of the 1986 Vaccine Injury Act. As such, the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program was created, and those who have directly suffered an injury from vaccination can file a petition for compensation," she said. "The VICP has already paid out $4.4 billion to those who have won in court and proven injury or death from vaccines. However, that number is only a small fraction of those who have actually been injured. Since the COVID-19 vaccine falls under the PREP Act, legal liability will be limited once again for vaccine-related injuries and deaths."
Kroner also pointed to the short time frame in terms of vaccine development – stressing that they are usually made and brought to market within a 10- to 15-year timeframe with three phases, including animal and human trials – as well being forced to consume a product "where injury is possible and where there is no liability."
"Right now, we're hearing that many states are considering mandating the vaccine, while airlines, concert ticket sales and employers would require proof of vaccination status," she continued. "The New York Bar Association recently recommended mandating the COVID-19 vaccine to all New Yorkers and pushing for a federal mandate, regardless of religious or personal objections."
According to Swann, one basis for vaccine hesitancy comes from 1976, when the U.S. pushed a new vaccine to prevent a potential flu pandemic.
"Politics may have been one factor in releasing the vaccine, which caused more harm than the disease it was addressing. The U.S. government has a history of conducting health experiments and forced sterilizations on communities of color, leading to preventable deaths and violations of rights," she explained. "Third, there have been fraudulent claims linking vaccines to various problems. No matter how often those claims have been debunked, there are still people who believe them."
Alison Faith, 45, from New Jersey, underscored that her refusal to be inoculated is born out of a belief in allowing one's "God-given immune systems to do their job, as well as our constitutional right to 'bodily integrity.'"
"This means I have a right to make my own medical decisions, not the government," she insisted. "I have the constitutional right to personal freedoms as well, including the right to travel freely and a right to medical privacy. Each of these things would be gravely violated with any mandatory vaccines."
Researchers emphasize that vaccine distrust is even greater within the Black community. Pew researchers found that just 32% of Black adults would "definitely or probably" get inoculated, compared to 52% of White adults, 56% of Hispanics, and 72% of the Asian American community.
However, Justin Beck, CEO and founder of Contakt World, a technology firm that partners with public health agencies and the general public to offer tools that connect with communities, contended that "misinformation surrounding vaccines' safety is the greatest factor, most of which is driven by companies who sell products to 'anti-vaxxers' – and anti-science rhetoric from uninformed politicians who are appealing to their base at the expense of people's lives."
"The FDA has been diligent in avoiding political pressure by maintaining a balance of speed to market and obtaining data sufficient to provide emergency use authorization," Beck said. "While we can't yet confirm the long-term efficacy or safety of COVID-19 vaccines, there is enough data to confirm at least three are safe and effective."
Not everyone is buying the line.
William Points, a 48-year-old based in Florida, said his stance against getting the coronavirus vaccination stems from corporate mistrust and personal experience with the disease.
"I have known more than 20 people that have had the virus, two being my son-in-law and his 70-something-year-old father. He and the rest recovered within a week," he said. "Yes, they were all sick and miserable during that time but said it wasn't anything more than flu-like symptoms."
Similarly, Tracie Suderman, a 56-year-old retired elementary teacher in Colorado, said she is saying no – for now.
"I'm healthy and without comorbidities, (and) I rarely take new vaccines," she said. "But I am encouraging my 89-year-old mom with heart issues and cancer to consider getting the vaccine. She needs to have a life, and being in a protected state constantly isn't much of a life right now."
Scott Nathan, a 53-year-old professional in Los Angeles, is opting to wait it out – despite having an autoimmune disease.
"I'm not anti-vaccine. On the contrary, I get my flu shot every season and recently got my shingles vaccine. I don't have enough information yet to feel safe," he said. "I won't be first, but if the research and efficacy checks out, I probably won't wait more than a few months."
Subsequently, many medical professionals and vaccine supporters remain hopeful that given the steady time rollout – providing the shots are disseminated without any major alarms – Americans will gradually become more willing.
A Goldman Sachs economics report this week projected that around half the U.S. and Canadian populations would be inoculated by April, with over 70% in the developed market vaccinated by the fall of 2021.
The initial batches of the vaccine are expected to be issued first to those considered high risk, such as the elderly and those with severe underlying health conditions, as well as frontline health care workers, before reaching more mainstream adult population groups in the spring of 2021 and eventually children by about October.
The investment bank has forecasted that even the first rollout will result in significant public health benefits for the first quarter of next year.
Nonetheless, experts caution that vaccines are only useful if one takes them.
Several other Americans interviewed by Fox News said that they wanted to wait to see when and how the population would reach "herd immunity" before being injected. But the U.S. has never immunized its population in the numbers needed to reach herd immunity against the novel contagion, which originated in Wuhan, China, sometime late last year.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) leading the Trump administration's scientific charge against the virus, has previously projected that 75% to 85% of the American public will need to get vaccinated, although the percentage of the population required to achieve herd immunity varies for each disease.
"Suppose we don't reach the 75% to 85% vaccination rate minimum. In that case, we can expect COVID-19 will ravage our economy and communities for years to come – especially ones that have long-suffered from inequality in our country," Beck warned.
To date, the coronavirus has infected more than 14 million people in the U.S. and claimed the lives of some 280,000. The pathogen has been broadly charted as having a 99% recovery rate, but its long-term effects remain unknown.
With the winter nearing and the typical cold-and-flu season in full swing, medical authorities are bracing for a grim few months ahead.
"Unfortunately, the vaccine has become somewhat politicized – while the trials have moved quickly, all the same steps have been followed as far as monitoring for safety, different phases of trials and number of participants," added Dr. Katie Passaretti, the medical director of infection prevention at Atrium Health and a member of the Society of Healthcare Epidemiology of America. "(But) a successful vaccine is the key to our lives returning to some sense of normalcy."