Guest Article

How pharma companies and governments can overcome COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy

By Claus Møldrup

- Last updated on GMT

How pharma companies and governments can overcome COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy

Related tags: vaccine hesitancy, COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic is expected to continue to impose enormous burdens on societies and economies globally. While governments are now getting ready to ensure large-scale distribution of a vaccine, concern about vaccine hesitancy is growing worldwide. Recent research found over half of UK patients will only take a COVID-19 vaccine after it has been tested for at least a year.

In light of this, Claus Møldrup, qualified pharmacist, CEO of DrugStars, a patient management app, as well as co-founder of DrugsDisclosed, a platform for patient medication reviews and of DrugsDiscovered, a new service designed to remove red tape to allow the pharma industry to take action on patient insights, has compiled a piece for us on how pharma companies and governments can mitigate the threat of COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy.

On December 31, 2019, health authorities in China alerted the World Health Organization (WHO) to several unusual cases of pneumonia in the city of Wuhan. Since then, the world has experienced enormous upheaval and change, amid a pandemic at the hands of what we now know to be the Coronavirus.

For much of 2020, the world’s focus has been on finding a vaccine, to restore human interaction and normality across society. With many pharmaceutical companies now claiming we’re close to producing a regulatory approved jab, our attention turns to the distribution process and how governments can mitigate the hesitancy many are feeling around taking a new vaccine, to ensure successful protection for the nation.

Vaccine hesitancy

The WHO lists vaccine hesitancy as one of its top 10 global health threats​, citing a lack of confidence as a key reason for this underlining reluctance. This is often driven by misinformation and poor communication with the public and as well as a lack of easy-to-understand information.

Despite the widespread hesitancy, governments globally are currently preparing to roll out a vaccine as soon as regulators give the go ahead.

The UK government has issued new laws that allow more healthcare workers to administer potential COVID-19 vaccines to the nation. This portrays a sense of urgency while not necessarily landing a message of safety and could be further fueling a lack of confidence in taking it.

Research by DrugsDiscovered.com indicated that the UK has a deeply divided attitude toward taking a vaccine. The research revealed that more than half (54%) of UK patients would not take a vaccine unless it has been tested for a least a year. A further three quarters (74%) would not allow their children to be vaccinated unless a potential cure has undergone at least a year of testing.

Science has indicated, in order to achieve herd immunity, approximately 70% of the population​ would need to be effectively vaccinated to stop the COVID-19 pandemic in its tracks. This level of mistrust could potentially undermine efforts to curb the virus, with over half the adult population remaining at risk from further outbreaks. 

The patient trust deficit

To overcome vaccine hesitancy, we must first address the mistrust from the public with those developing the vaccine, pharmaceutical companies. Previous research by DrugsDiscovered.com revealed a trust deficit between patients and pharmaceutical companies. Nine in ten (93%) UK patients do not trust advice from pharmaceutical companies about their medication, while 81% do not feel listened to by them. 

Recent analysis by the Vaccine Confidence Project of COVID-19 social media conversations​ uncovered some of the core vaccine concerns in the UK. They found online discussions were taking place around hesitancy in accepting a vaccine that had not been fully tested, while others circulated messages of fear of mandatory vaccination.

The UK Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, recently said, while the UK government is not planning to make vaccination a requirement, they will have to watch what happens​. This unclear messaging does nothing to dispel concerns. In the digital age we live in, many are turning to social media for guidance and reassurance, but as an often-unregulated source, misinformation is rife, potentially adding to further reluctance. 

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Claus Møldrup is also a former professor in social pharmacy at the University of Copenhagen and spent more than five years as an executive director at a large pharmaceutical company.

The issue of trust is not a political one. These conversations further reiterate the need for a trusted source. The public need to be brought on the journey and feel encouraged to share their thoughts and reassured that their concerns are being heard. Pharmaceutical companies being open, honest and listening to patients, will help dispel hesitancy and allay fears.  Although the development process is now quite advanced, it is not too late to address the deficit head on, transparency is key.

The democratization of data

There are several ways communication can evolve to ensure open dialogue and sharing of data between pharmaceutical companies and the public. In the current era, increased access to information is empowering the general public in a variety of ways.

During the COVID-19 pandemic we have seen a range of advancements, including an increase in online GP appointments, driven by a combination of necessity but crucially, changing patient expectations. Research from Accenture found that 33% of millennials and 41% of Gen Z patients​ are in favor of virtual appointments as opposed to in-person visits. Patients want healthcare on their terms, and we have seen healthcare systems actively listen and deliver.

The average person in the UK now possess a greater ability than ever to influence change and improve products and services directly. Review platforms and other online communities are empowering the public to have their say. The ‘Trust Pilot’ model can also be applied to medication and would allow the voice of the patient to be a critical link in the process, checking the temperature through patient experiences.

With increased patient insight the pharmaceutical industry can benefit significantly and be encouraged to improve output by keeping the patient at the front of mind, not only in development, but in the release and ongoing evolution of a vaccine.

Power to the patient

The patient voice must be heeded by government and pharmaceutical companies in order to overcome the public divide on a COVID-19 vaccine. Clear and concise information and a unified mechanism for its delivery are the way forward. The ramifications of not developing a real-world listening tool to tackle the issue at hand are significant and may continue to impact us all in the fight to restore a sense of normality and propel us into the future we have all been waiting for.

Related topics: Markets & Regulations, COVID-19

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