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John Gibson: How Vaccine Messaging Confused the Public

Pivotal randomized control trials (RCTs) underpinning approval of Covid-19 vaccines did not set out to, and did not, test if the vaccines prevent transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Nor did the trials test if the vaccines reduce mortality risk. A review of seven phase III trials, including those for Moderna, Pfizer/BioNTech and AstraZeneca vaccines, found the criterion the vaccines were trialled against was just reduced risk of Covid-19 symptoms.

There should be no secret about these facts, as they were discussed in August 2020 in the BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal); one of the oldest and most widely cited medical journals in the world. Moreover, this was not an isolated article, as the editor-in-chief also gave her own summary of the vaccine-testing situation, which has proved very prescient:

“…we are heading for vaccines that reduce severity of illness rather than protect against infection [and] provide only short-lived immunity, … as well as damaging public confidence and wasting global resources by distributing a poorly effective vaccine, this could change what we understand a vaccine to be. Instead of long-term, effective disease prevention it could become a suboptimal chronic treatment. It was not just the BMJ covering these features of the RCTs. When health bureaucrats Rochelle Walensky, Henry Walke and Anthony Fauci claimed (in the Journal of the American Medical Association) that “clinical trials have shown that the vaccines authorized for use in the US are highly effective against Covid-19 infection, severe illness and death” this was felt sufficiently false that the journal published a comment simply titled “Inaccurate Statement.” "

The basis of the comment was that the primary endpoint for the RCTs was symptoms of Covid-19; a less exacting standard than testing to show efficacy against infection, severe illness, and death.

Yet these aspects of the vaccine trials discussed in medical journals are largely unknown by the general public. To measure public understanding of the Covid-19 vaccine trials I added a question about the vaccine testing to an ongoing nationally representative survey of adult New Zealanders.

While not top-of-mind for most readers, New Zealand is a useful place for finding out about public understanding of the vaccine trials. Until recently, when a few doses of AstraZeneca and Novavax vaccines were allowed, it was 100% Pfizer, making it easy to word the survey question very specifically about the Pfizer vaccine trials.

Also, New Zealanders were vaccinated in a very short period, just prior to the survey. In late August 2021 New Zealand was last in the OECD in dosing rates but by December, when the survey was fielded, it had jumped into the top half of the OECD, with vaccinations rising by an average of 110 doses per 100 people in just over three months.

This rapid rise in vaccination was partly driven by mandates, for health, education, police, and emergency workers and also by a vaccine passport system that blocked the unvaccinated from most places. The mandates were strictly applied, and even people suffering adverse reactions after their first shot, such as Bell’s Palsy and pericarditis, still had to get the second shot. The vaccine passport law had gone through Parliament just prior to the survey, so the vaccines, and what was expected of them, should have been utmost in peoples’ minds.

The other relevant factor about New Zealand is the government-dominated media, which is either publicly funded, or is heavily subsidized by a “public interest journalism fund” and by generous government advertising of the Covid-19 vaccines. Also, supposedly independent commentators prominent in the media got their talking points about the vaccines from the government in a carefully orchestrated public relations campaign.

Thus, it was mainly overseas journalists who expressed concern when New Zealand’s Prime Minister made the Orwellian claim that in matters of Covid-19 and vaccines: “Dismiss anything else, we will continue to be your single source of truth.”

Yet a government-controlled media and a vaccine advertising blitz yielded widespread public misunderstanding about the testing the vaccines underwent in pivotal trials. The survey asked if the Pfizer vaccine had been trialed against: (a) preventing infection and transmission of SARS-CoV-2, or (b) reducing risk of getting symptoms of Covid-19, or (c) reducing risk of getting seriously sick or dying, or (d) all of the above. The correct answer is (b), the trials only set out to test if the vaccines reduced the risk of getting Covid-19 symptoms.

Only four percent of respondents got the right answer. In other words, 96 percent of adult New Zealanders thought the Covid-19 vaccines were tested against more demanding criteria than is actually the case.

Currently, most Covid-19 cases in New Zealand are post-vaccination. And despite almost everyone being vaccinated, and most boosted, the rate of new confirmed Covid-19 cases is one of the highest in the world. As people see with their own eyes that one can still get infected they may question what they have been led to (mis)understand about the vaccines.

Elsewhere it is noted that vaccine fanaticism—especially denying natural immunity—fuels vaccine scepticism. As people see that public health authorities lied about natural immunity they will wonder if they also lied about vaccine efficacy. Likewise, as they realise they were given a misleading impression about what the vaccines were trialed against they might doubt other claims about vaccines.

In particular, by believing the vaccines were tested against more demanding criteria than was actually so, public expectations of what vaccination would achieve were likely too high. As the public witnesses a failure of mass vaccination to prevent SARS-CoV-2 infections, and a failure to reduce overall mortality, scepticism about these and other vaccines will grow.

In New Zealand this issue is exacerbated by the Prime Minister creating a false equivalence between Covid-19 vaccines and measles vaccines. Currently the paediatric vaccination rate (which includes the measles vaccine) for indigenous Maori has dropped 12 percentage points in two years and 0.3 million measles vaccines had to be discarded after expiring due to lack of demand. The advertising for Covid-19 vaccines particularly targets Maori, with claims that boosters will protect them against Omicron. The progress of infections is likely to prove this claim to be largely untrue, and so Maori are likely to be even more sceptical about future vaccination, even for vaccines that truly can be described as ‘safe and effective.’

If politicians and health bureaucrats had been honest with the public, setting out the criteria the Covid-19 vaccines were trialed against, and what could and could not be expected of the vaccines, then this widespread misunderstanding need not have occurred. Instead, their lack of honesty is likely to damage future vaccination efforts and harm public health.

John Gibson, Professor of Economics, teaches at the University of Waikato. He previously taught at the University of Canterbury and Williams College, was a research visitor at the Centre for the Study of African Economies, University of Oxford and is an Associate Researcher at the LICOS Centre for Institutions and Economic Performance at KU Leuven. He received his PhD from Stanford University and has since worked around the world in countries like Cambodia, China, India, Papua New Guinea, Russia, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Thailand, Tonga, Vanuatu, and Vietnam. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand and a Distinguished Fellow of the New Zealand Association of Economists and of the Australasian Agricultural and Resource Economics Society.

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