'Infodemic' may hurt vaccine roll-out: WHO

Misinformation, fake news continue to undermine efforts to control pandemic

PARIS • As early as February, with the global pandemic spreading fast, the World Health Organisation (WHO) issued a warning about an "infodemic", a wave of fake news and misinformation about the deadly new disease on social media.

Now with hopes hanging on Covid-19 vaccines, the WHO and experts are warning those same phenomena may jeopardise roll-out of immunisation programmes meant to help end the suffering.

"The coronavirus disease is the first pandemic in history in which technology and social media are being used on a massive scale to keep people safe, informed, productive and connected," the WHO said.

"At the same time, the technology we rely on to keep connected and informed is enabling and amplifying an infodemic that continues to undermine the global response and jeopardises measures to control the pandemic."

More than 1.4 million people have died since the pandemic emerged in China late last year, but three developers are already applying for approval for their vaccines to be used as early as next month.

Beyond logistics, though, governments must also contend with scepticism over vaccines developed with record speed at a time when social media has been both a tool for information and falsehood about the virus.

Last month, a study from Cornell University in the United States found US President Donald Trump has been the world's biggest driver of Covid-19 misinformation.

In April, he mused on the possibility of using disinfectants inside the body as a cure and also promoted unproven treatments.

The WHO said: "Without the appropriate trust and correct information, diagnostic tests go unused, immunisation campaigns (or campaigns to promote effective vaccines) will not meet their targets, and the virus will continue to thrive."

Outlandish claims by conspiracy theorists that the pandemic is a hoax masterminded by elites like Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates to control the population are already making their rounds on social media. They also claimed that the vaccination programmes are a shield to implant microscopic chips in people so that they could be monitored.

Dr Steven Wilson, co-author of Social Media and Vaccine Hesitancy published in the British Medical Journal last month, said: "My fear is that will increase the number of individuals who are hesitant about getting a vaccine. Any vaccine is only as effective as our capacity to deploy it to a population."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 27, 2020, with the headline ''Infodemic' may hurt vaccine roll-out: WHO'. Print Edition | Subscribe