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Health care executives fear public distrust of COVID-19 vaccine will lead to continued spread of disease

July 8, 2020, 10:02 PM UTC

The health care industry is optimistic that a vaccine for COVID-19 will be developed within the next year, but they’re worried that public distrust is so high it won’t be effectively implemented.

Researchers are currently developing more than 145 vaccines around the world to prevent COVID-19 infections. More than 20 of them are already in human trials with the hope that something could be available to the general public by early 2021. But a vaccine isn’t worth anything if no one takes it.

A panel of health care industry insiders speaking at Fortune’s Brainstorm Health Virtual conference on Wednesday expressed concern that public trust in vaccinations has eroded to the point where people will refuse the shot.

“I’m not seeing an improvement in public trust,” said Michael Neidorff, the chairman, president, and CEO of Centene, a health insurance company reporting $75 billion in revenue last year.

The problems associated with getting people to wear masks, which is a much simpler solution than visiting a health care professional and receiving a shot, is prologue to what we’ll see when it comes to getting people vaccinated, he explained.

Dr. Julie Gerberding, executive vice president and chief patent officer at pharmaceutical giant Merck agreed that there would be challenges ahead. “Trust isn’t going to come from the top down, especially in this political environment,” she said.

Even the name of President Donald Trump’s vaccination-hastening project, Operation Warp Speed may sow distrust said Gerberding. “From the standpoint of Merck, we need to be crystal clear that we’re not sacrificing safety for speed,” she said. The term ‘warp speed’ may seem incongruous with safety, so it’s up to professionals to prove that they’re not taking shortcuts. 

The pair addressed how to use community-level tools to ensure that when vaccinations are available, Americans receive them. They agreed that it begins with local physicians and trusted members of communities assuaging any worries or doubts.

“People don’t understand the safety of vaccines. We’re going to need to work with physicians and locals to set examples,” said Neidorff. It’s important to launch grass-root efforts as soon as possible to get ahead of any problems and begin explaining the importance of vaccinations, added Gerberding. 

Both Neidorff and Gerberding said that they hope lessons learned about the quick development and distribution of vaccines could be applied to future pandemics, which they warned will increase in frequency. 

“This isn’t necessarily the worst pandemic we’re going to face. I think this is a new chapter of history where we’re going to have to accept these events,” said Gerberding. “This isn’t the last war and we need to commit to serious health security.”