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Scientists join effort to fight misinformation about COVID-19

whatsapp Copyright: dimarik16 / 123RF Stock Photo. Social media platforms like WhatsApp are major vectors for the spread of misinformation about COVID-19. Image credit: dimarik16 / 123RF
Social media platforms like WhatsApp are major vectors for the spread of misinformation about COVID-19. Image credit: dimarik16 / 123RF

During this pandemic, misinformation about COVID-19 has been a major issue of concern. The scientific and medical communities are working to change that – especially when it comes to a COVID-19 vaccine. 

More than 100 scientists – including more than twenty from India – have joined the cause of Team Halo. Team Halo is a joint initiative of the United Nations’s Verified initiative and the Vaccine Confidence Project of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine with support from various organisations including the UN Foundation, Luminate, the IKEA Foundation, and the Global Challenges Foundation. It describes itself as “an effort to support and celebrate the inspiring collaboration between scientists all over the world to help us end this pandemic with safe and effective vaccines.” 

The spreading of fake news linked to health matters is not a new phenomenon, especially when it comes to vaccines. In the case of measles, as I wrote for Health Issues India last year, resurgences of the disease – despite it being a vaccine-preventable disease – could be linked with anti-vaccine misinformation. “This is the case,” I wrote, “not only with the measles and rubella vaccine, but also other vital protections such as the vaccine against the human papillomavirus (HPV), which can prevent numerous forms of cancer – most notably cervical cancer, which is a leading cause of death among Indian women.” During COVID-19, the crisis has intensified.

Such are the concerns about misinformation about COVID-19 that the World Health Organization (WHO) have spoken out about an ‘infodemic’ and held their first infodemiology conference earlier this year. “An infodemic cannot be eliminated but it can be managed,” they said. “To respond effectively to infodemics, WHO has called for adaptation, development, validation and evaluation of new evidence-based measures and practices to prevent, detect and respond to mis- and disinformation.”

Initiatives such as that being undertaken by Team Halo are valuable tools in fighting the misinformation about COVID-19. Misinformation can have grave consequences, deterring people from accessing life-saving treatments and even using dangerous and potentially life-threatening ones. 

Social media allows for misinformation – including as it pertains to health – to spread like wildfire. As I wrote earlier this year

“In India, the widespread use of social media tools such as WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter and more has enabled myths surrounding public health and claims of dubious cures for any number of conditions to diffuse into the public consciousness…this has manifested during the COVID-19 pandemic, with India being a large progenitor of fake news about COVID-19 shared on WhatsApp and social media feeds being replete with unverified cures for the novel coronavirus and myths about its origins.”

In India, 61 percent of people express skepticism about a vaccine according to a LocalCircles survey. Bolstering confidence in vaccines is a public health necessity, hence why Team Halo’s initiative is so important. “Rampant misinformation has undermined public trust in vaccines,” said Melissa Fleming, the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Global Communications. “Team Halo is about reclaiming that trust. These are incredible people doing exciting science as part of a global collaboration. We should be celebrating them for helping us get to the end of this awful pandemic.”

One of Team Halo’s Indian contributors, Dr Gagandeep Kang, a professor of microbiology at the Christian Medical College in Vellore and chair of the Immunisation Technical Advisory Group for the World Health Organisation South East Asian Region, said “at my institution we are studying how COVID-19 reinfection operates and I am excited about opening up the story of the search for COVID-19 vaccines for the public. People want to know about the science and stories behind the headlines, and I’m delighted to be experimenting with social media to make serious points in creative ways.”

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