Fear of “vaccine hesitancy” is dogging President Biden’s COVID-19 effort, but the U.S. isn’t the only place twisting arms before jabbing them, with Africans wary of Western powers offering shots and Beijing doling out cash and other enticements to denizens who no longer see the virus as a threat.
China spent recent months exporting doses in a form of “vaccine diplomacy” but is ramping up domestic efforts so it can reopen international borders and stiff-arm variants of the virus that first appeared in Wuhan before spreading around the globe.
The Pinggu district of Beijing offered 50 yuan — close to $8 — or items of equal value to people who got fully vaccinated ahead of the World Leisure Conference this month. The Chinese Education Ministry is leaning on teachers and students to get vaccinated against a pathogen that many residents view as the rest of the world’s problem.
“On average, they don’t see the urgency. The number of cases is just not high and people have sort of returned to normal. Activities have resumed, so you can understand the desire for the vaccine is not very high,” said Winnie Yip, a professor of the practice in global health policy and economics at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Vaccine hesitancy in Europe has been stoked by far-left and far-right parties, and lingering questions about the AstraZeneca shots and rare blood clots caused attitudes to darken in major countries, with only 23% of French respondents viewing that vaccine as safe in a recent poll.
AstraZeneca’s vaccine faced another setback Wednesday, as European regulators said that there is a “possible link” to the clotting and that individual countries should decide whether to give it to certain groups, though they said the shots remain beneficial in fighting COVID-19.
For its part, the U.S. seems to be sloughing off hesitancy, with the “wait-and-see” crowd shrinking in major polls and Mr. Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell — rivals on a series of issues — speaking the same language in getting GOP men and other recalcitrant groups to roll up their sleeves.
Only 13% of survey respondents told the Kaiser Family Foundation in March they will “definitely not” get the vaccine as the U.S. pursues herd immunity. But a key lesson from the pandemic is that a problem in one place is a problem everywhere.
“Even though we’ve focused a lot in this conversation on vaccinations in the U.S., unless we can achieve widespread vaccinations and control the pandemic on a global scale we are not going to be safe in the U.S., even if we have quote-unquote herd immunity within the U.S. boundaries,” Lavanya Vasudevan, a professor of law and philosophy at Duke University, said Wednesday in a media videoconference.
Feelings of hesitancy, especially in poorer countries, often “have to do with a general mistrust of where the vaccines are coming from, who has control over the vaccines and how willing they are to share the vaccines,” Ms. Vasudevan said.
A survey of 15 African countries, released March 25, found respondents tended to view the COVID-19 vaccines as less safe than other vaccines, while more than 50% felt the threat of the virus had been exaggerated, according to Opinion Research Business International.
Nearly half believed COVID-19 was a planned event by foreigners and 45% believed Africans were being used as “guinea pigs” for vaccine trials.
In Europe, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi is testing his country’s laws with a decree that orders health care workers to get vaccinated after a spate of outbreaks in hospitals, saying it is “not OK” for those who tend the sick to forego immunization.
The debate around the AstraZeneca shot and clotting is another concern that could fuel hesitancy in Europe. The U.K. announced Wednesday it will offer those younger than 30 an alternative to AstraZeneca’s version after the European Medicines Agency concluded that “unusual blood clots” should be listed as a “very rare side effect” of that vaccine.
It’s a wrinkle in an otherwise successful rollout in the U.K., with nearly half of all residents receiving at least an initial dose after the country decided to delay second doses of available vaccines by up to 12 weeks.
For its part, AstraZeneca said it will work with regulators to update product information but noted that, overall, reviews in the U.K. and European Union “reaffirmed the vaccine offers a high-level of protection against all severities of COVID-19 and that these benefits continue to far outweigh the risks.”
The U.S. hasn’t approved the AstraZeneca version of the vaccine yet, and is relying on versions from Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson. One-third of the American population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and 1 in 5 is fully vaccinated.
Biden administration officials said Wednesday their main concern is the dreaded B.1.1.7, or “U.K.,” variant that is likely fueling the spread around day-care centers and youth sports, while resulting in more hospital stays among adults in their 30s and 40s.
“The B.1.1.7 variant is now the most common lineage circulating in the United States,” said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Testing remains an important strategy to rapidly identify and isolate infectious individuals, including those with variants of concern.”
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