COVID-19:'Conspiracy theories and mistrust' behind low vaccine uptake in some ethnic minority groups

·6-min read

The success of COVID vaccine rollout is seen as key to lifting the restrictions imposed to curb the spread of the virus.

Almost 14.6 million people have now received their first coronavirus jab - but there are concerns about the low uptake among some ethnic minority groups.

False conspiracy theories surrounding the vaccine are reported to have spread among some in those communities - but are there other reasons behind this worrying trend? Sky News explains.

How big of a problem is this?

The man in charge of the UK's coronavirus vaccine rollout has admitted the government is "very concerned" about the low uptake among some ethnic minority communities.

Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi told Sky News that overall COVID-19 vaccine acceptance is "very high", with data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showing 85% of adults are very likely to take up the offer of a jab.

But Mr Zahawi said the remaining 15% "skew heavily" towards ethnic minority groups "especially Afro-Caribbean, black communities and of course other Asian and BAME communities".

He warned: "If one particular community remains unvaccinated, then the virus will seek them out and it will go through that community like wildfire and that's not something any of us wish to see."

According to the Royal College of GPs, white people in England are more than twice as likely to have been vaccinated as people from black backgrounds, and three times as likely as people from mixed ethnic backgrounds.

The low uptake of vaccinations among some ethnic minority groups is of particular concern because they are among the most at risk of dying with COVID-19.

The ONS revealed last year that black people were nearly four times as likely to die from COVID-19 as white people.

Meanwhile, research published this week by experts from institutions, including the ONS and University of Oxford, showed that people from Bangladeshi and Pakistani groups experienced an "alarming" higher risk of dying with coronavirus throughout both waves of the pandemic, compared with white people.

Why is vaccine uptake low among some ethnic minority groups?

The government's scientific advisers have said there is "limited" evidence about the barriers to COVID-19 vaccine uptake among ethnic minority groups.

A document prepared in January by the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (SAGE) said one issue was "lower trust and confidence in vaccine efficacy and safety" which is linked to "structural and institutional racism and discrimination".

Ethnic minority groups have "historically been under-represented within health research, including vaccines trials, which can influence trust in a particular vaccine being perceived as appropriate and safe", SAGE said.

"Trust is particularly important for black communities that have low trust in healthcare organisations and research findings due to historical issues of unethical healthcare research," it added.

London's regional director of Public Health England (PHE) has insisted people from minority ethnic backgrounds who are reluctant to have the vaccine are not "choosing to be difficult".

Professor Kevin Fenton said: "We must remember that mistrust is often on the back of historic difficulties that people have with services that we also need to overcome as well."

Language literacy, the views of parents and guardians and how younger people might influence attitudes of older relatives in multigenerational households are all factors which must be considered when it comes to vaccine hesitancy, Prof Fenton said.

What role are false conspiracy theories playing?

SAGE has warned that distrust about the COVID-19 vaccine is linked to "the spread of misinformation" as well as the speed that the jab was approved for use.

Dr Perpetua Emeagi, a lecturer in human biology and biological sciences at Liverpool Hope University, told Sky News she has heard several fears based on myths about the vaccine among African communities in the UK.

They included that people were being "used as experimental animals" and that the vaccine will "change their DNA".

Another fear expressed was that the vaccine will "insert a microchip… that will activate as a computer", Dr Emeagi added.

"Some people are looking at it like human beings are being used as guinea pigs," she told Sky News.

Dr Emeagi said she staged a webinar to try to dispel the myths and improve understanding of the vaccine.

She has now called on the government to improve the amount of information available about the development and effect of the vaccines to reassure people who are concerned.

Imran Ahmed, from the Centre for Countering Digital Hate, told Sky News that the fears being targeted among some people in the Muslim community were that "somehow the vaccine contains components that aren't halal".

"They're willing to use misinformation, misrepresentation and outright lies," he added.

England's deputy chief medical officer, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, has also dismissed the false conspiracy theory that the vaccine increases infertility, describing it as a "nasty, pernicious scare story".

The Royal College of Nursing has said health and community leaders have been "too slow" to react to anti-vax messages circulating on social media.

Its chief executive Dame Donna Kinnair said there has been a "real distrust" around the COVID-19 vaccination programme in some communities - particularly in those from African, Caribbean and Asian backgrounds.

"Social media influences more people than we perhaps realise, and quite often when I talk to communities, it's often the young people in the communities that are hesitant to take the vaccine and influence the older people," she said.

What's being done to encourage more vaccine uptake?

The government and the NHS have launched a new vaccine uptake plan that is designed to reach vulnerable and underserved groups, and dispel the myths that surround the COVID-19 jab.

Among its new initiatives, several public health videos have been translated into 13 different languages to target specific audiences.

Celebrities and a cross-party group of MPs have also collaborated on social media videos to encourage uptake.

Meanwhile, Home Secretary Priti Patel has told social media companies such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube that they have a social responsibility to take down anti-vaccination content and wider misinformation about the coronavirus pandemic.

During a visit to a vaccination centre in north London, she said: "I'd say to social media companies 'do your own bit, take responsibility, pull down misinformation and disinformation', and there's no harm in them actually linking a lot of their stuff to the NHS and"

Scotland's first black professor has said a more diverse line-up of experts should have been prominent throughout the pandemic to help promote coronavirus vaccines.

Professor Sir Geoff Palmer, of Heriot-Watt University, said more experts from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds should have been standing alongside Prime Minister Boris Johnson to speak about the virus from the beginning.

He told Sky News that while there has been a "slight shift" in the right direction, he thinks "it's a little bit late".

"More BAME people are taking the vaccine, because BAME people are being seen promoting it and I think that this is a lesson we should learn," Prof Palmer added.

UK researchers are looking at the reasons why people from some ethnic minority groups have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, through four new projects funded by UK Research and Innovation via the Economic and Social Research Council.