Analysis: Believing in conspiracies goes hand in hand with vaccine hesitancy

Dr Gul Deniz Salali, Lecturer in Evolutionary Anthropology and Medicine at UCL, discusses new research which confirms findings from before the pandemic that vaccine hesitancy often coincides with broader anti-scientific thinking.

While developing an effective vaccine  probably won’t  bring an immediate end to the pandemic, it’s clear that things can’t begin to return to normal without one. Anything that reduces a future vaccine’s effectiveness will be a problem. This includes  vaccine hesitancy - when people are reluctant or refuse to be vaccinated.

In a  recent survey , a colleague and I asked 1,088 people in the UK about their thoughts on a COVID-19 vaccine. About one in seven (14%) were "hesitant" to take one, and a further 3% said they would reject a vaccine outright.

This correlates with other studies. A YouGov survey earlier this year found that  one in six Britons  would either "definitely" or "probably" not get a COVID-19 vaccine. And in a recently published  international study , only 71% of British people said they would get vaccinated against the disease. Given that  50-75%  of people need to be immune to control the virus’s spread, this is worrying.

Rejecting science

Our survey also examined what factors were associated with people’s decision-making about whether to accept a COVID-19 vaccine.

A key factor we found to be associated with vaccine hesitancy was whether a person believed in the  conspiracy theory  that the coronavirus was artificially created. Among those in the UK who thought the virus came from a lab, only 69% said they would accept a COVID-19 vaccine. But acceptance rose to 88% among those who believed the virus originated naturally in wildlife.

This reinforces  previously found associations  between holding a conspiratorial worldview and being vaccine hesitant. Other  recent studies  have also found an association between believing COVID-19 conspiracies and being reluctant to take a COVID-19 vaccine. The conspiracy about the virus’s artificial origins in particular was among those identified in one  international study  looking into this.

But why do people who believe in conspiracies also reject vaccines? We can’t be sure, but we know people who believe in one conspiracy are  more likely to believe in others , and so may be more likely to believe false information about COVID-19 vaccines  being harmful  or the pandemic  being a hoax.

We also know that people who hold a conspiratorial worldview are more likely to  reject scientific propositions  more widely. Vaccine hesitancy may just be a part of this.

Are there other factors at play?

Our survey also found that several other behavioural and demographic factors were associated with vaccine acceptance.

For instance, we asked participants about the level of their anxieties related to the pandemic, such as being more worried about catching or passing on the virus. A one point increase in their pandemic-related anxiety score (on a scale of one to four) increased the odds of vaccine acceptance by 36%.

In a separate question, we also asked respondents to give a percentage score for how likely they thought it was that they would catch COVID-19. A 10% increase in a person’s perceived risk of catching the disease increased the odds of them accepting the vaccine by 12%.

The frequency of watching, listening to or reading the news about the pandemic was also positively associated with vaccine acceptance among UK respondents.

Level of education did not predict vaccine acceptance, but did correlate with beliefs on the virus’s origin. Respondents with postgraduate and graduate degrees were more likely to believe in the natural origin of the virus compared with those without.

This is consistent with previous findings on the  link between  believing in conspiracies and lower levels of education. Likewise, existing research suggests that people who are vaccine hesitant are  not necessarily less educated , as we found here.

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