Understanding people’s fears and concerns relating to COVID-19 vaccines


Nowadays it is common practice to dismiss and even condemn people when their beliefs do not align with ours. When news began to circulate that ‘up to a third of people’ in the UK may refuse a coronavirus vaccine, based on a YouGov report of 1,663 adults, it was easy to blame this on anti-vaxxers.

While there is no denying that anti-vaccination campaigns have played a role in promoting safety concerns, they are not the sole cause of people’s worries.

Let’s look at the messages the public has received about the development of a COVID-19 vaccine. When the UK locked down in mid-March 2020, experts warned us that, if it was even possible, the development of a vaccine could take up to two years. Why would it take so long? Partly to allow time for adequate safety checks. A mere eight months later and Pfizer/BioNTech announce ground-breaking results from the first interim analysis of their Phase 3 trial investigating the use of BNT162b2 against SARS-CoV-2, reporting an efficacy rate of 95%—well beyond our hopes and expectations. But we were warned not to get too excited because we needed the safety data… and nine days later we had it! On top of that, by the end of November 2020 we have a few more vaccines all showing efficacy rates much higher than anticipated. The biggest concern now seems to be freezer space! Now, we’re not questioning the validity of the trials based on a brief scan of study protocols and press releases, nor trying to diminish the incredible work and efforts of all involved in the trials. It’s simply important to take a step back to consider the impact the rapidly changing messages in the news could be having on the general public. It’s also important to understand that it is possible to evolve a message, but it must be done with transparency and sensitivity to the nature of the evolving understanding of the situation (for more on acknowledging that there is ambiguity in scientific communications, please see: A case for communicating uncertainty).

Let’s consider the thalidomide crisis of the 1950s and 60s. Awareness of the consequences of thalidomide use in women with morning sickness is relatively high even now – through direct/indirect experience, inclusion in the UK curriculum, and even through current cultural references, such as the TV program ‘Call the Midwife’. As a result, many people are drawing parallels between what was proclaimed a ‘wonder drug’ at the time, and the COVID-19 vaccines currently in development. This is in addition to a background of fear around vaccinations stemming from unfounded concerns around the MMR jab as well as the usual onslaught of fake and unreliable news on social media.

It is a great achievement that vaccines against COVID-19 have been developed in such a short period of time. The next priority is ensuring there are appropriate steps in place for manufacturing and distributing vaccines to ensure they reach those who would benefit from them (for more on these aspects of vaccine delivery, please see: Is the world ready for a COVID-19 vaccine?). But even as we focus on logistical solutions for these challenges, we also must recognize that people may not be ready or willing to be vaccinated, and will be bringing their own perspectives and beliefs to the situation, as they do with any healthcare topic. So it’s critical to first understand people’s opinions and beliefs about receiving a vaccine—or any other treatment for a condition or disease they are facing—to tailor communications to help allay some of their fears.

Looking to better understand how your audiences feel about potential new treatments—whether they relate to COVID-19 or other diseases and conditions—to create communications that will resonate and change beliefs and behaviors? We’re here to help. Please contact us to find out how we can help.


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