Almost a third of Britons say they may not take up a vaccine for coronavirus, a poll showed, as researchers warned about the amount of anti-vaccine content circulating online.
In the study carried out by YouGov for the Centre for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) research group, 6% of those polled said they definitely would not get vaccinated for COVID-19.
A further 10% said they would “probably not” have a vaccine, while another 15% said they did not know, meaning a total of 31% will not have one or are unsure about it.
Researchers also warned about the large amount of anti-vax misinformation spreading on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram.
The survey polled more than 1,600 people in Britain, and found 38% said they would “definitely” have a coronavirus vaccination were it made available. A further 31% said they “probably” would choose to have the vaccine, meaning 69% plan to take it.
With scientists predicting that more than three-quarters of the population would need to be vaccinated in order to have success in suppressing coronavirus, the findings could represent a threat to the ability to contain COVID-19.
In the House of Commons on Tuesday, health secretary Matt Hancock said: "The government of the UK will recommend a vaccine as soon as one is available that is safe, but only when it is safe.
“And it is so important and incumbent on every single member of this House, that we make the case for why vaccines are both safe and effective.”
Separate teams of scientists at Oxford University and Imperial College London are developing a coronavirus vaccine.
In May, the government said it had hoped there would be a vaccine available for 30 million Britons by September.
However, one health expert warned earlier this month that a COVID-19 vaccine may not provide full immunity from the disease.
CCDH warned that 7.7 million more social media users have started following anti-vaccine accounts since the coronavirus outbreak. It found that members of the public who relied on social media more than traditional media for information were less likely to say they would get vaccinated.
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Last year, the UK lost its measles-free status due to experiencing a fall in the number of parents ensuring their children were vaccinated. For the first time since records began in 2012, four countries – Albania, Czech Republic, Greece and the UK – lost their status as having eliminated measles from the population.
At the time, Professor Martin Marshall, vice-chairman of the Royal College of GPs, said the loss highlighted that the UK was “still suffering from entirely debunked claims” around the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine from the Nineties, which were still circulating online.
Meanwhile, Boris Johnson said that change in status showed the UK was “suddenly going in the wrong direction” and that “people have been listening to that superstitious mumbo jumbo on the internet, all that anti-vax stuff”.
The CCDH report, The Anti-Vax Industry, said the total following for anti-vax advocates and groups online is up to 57 million across both the UK and the US.
It analysed more than 400 anti-vax Facebook groups and pages, YouTube channels, Twitter and Instagram accounts.
It found they were publishing false conspiracy theories, including that Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates had created the coronavirus pandemic, that vaccines cause COVID-19, and that tests for the coronavirus vaccine had caused women to become infertile.
The report accused social media companies of being too lenient on anti-vaccine content, with Facebook, Twitter and YouTube promising only to reduce the ease with which users could find anti-vax content, but refusing to remove pages or groups which promoted it.
Imran Ahmed, chief executive of CCDH, said: “Our hope for a return to normal life rests with scientists developing a successful vaccine for coronavirus.
“But social media companies’ irresponsible decision to continue to publish anti-vaccine propaganda means a vaccine may not be effective in containing the virus.
“The price for their greed is a cost paid in lives. There is simply no responsible justification for publishing lies and conspiracy theories about vaccines.”
A government spokesman added: “The science is clear – vaccines save lives, which is why we are leading a global effort to find a COVID-19 vaccine.
“Vaccine misinformation in any form is completely unacceptable and it is everyone’s responsibility to seek NHS advice, so that they have the right information to make the right choice.”
A Facebook spokeswoman said: “We are working to stop harmful misinformation from spreading on our platforms and have removed hundreds of thousands of pieces of COVID-19-related misinformation.”
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