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Antidotes to an Infodemic

Updated: Aug 23, 2021

Words by Michaila Byrne 

With the democratisation of information comes the proliferation of misinformation. Social media, ‘fake news’, and conspiracy theories are seeping into mainstream culture and, if not addressed, could have devastating impacts on public health. What can the industry do to quell fears around vaccine hesitancy and reclaim healthcare narratives?

When the outbreak of the Russian Flu ravaged the globe in 1889, science was undergoing a noteworthy period of transformation and advancement. At a loss for how to account for or explain this new illness, theories began to spread amongst the public promulgating that electric light bulbs could be the mysterious source of the disease.

Health misinformation and disinformation are nothing new and have long been symptoms of crises that run concurrently with technological progress. The parallels between 1889 and 2021 are plain to see, with fear driving behaviour and uncertainty breeding distrust.

The pharmaceutical industry may have been the solution to the COVID-19 pandemic, but a final push is necessary to ensure that the hard work of developing vaccines is not in vain. After all, vaccines don’t save lives: vaccinations do; and the ongoing challenge of health disinformation must be addressed head-on before it permeates other areas of healthcare.

Before remedying any condition, a physician must understand from where it originated. So why is misinformation proliferating? As exposed in the 2020 Netflix documentary ‘The Social Dilemma’, social media is without doubt one of the prime culprits, with algorithms that are designed primarily for engagement at risk of facilitating the dissemination of falsehoods. “As painful as it may be to pharma companies that spend a lot of money on marketing, the misinformation creators are simply better at it. They’re not preoccupied by things like ‘brand consistency’ and ‘authenticity’,” explains Paul Simms, Managing Partner, Impatient Health, and pharma provocateur. “Controversy and antagonism are engaging, so it’s true that platforms support the misinformation. They give lip service to combatting it because… it’s what drives their revenues.” José Maria Guido Avila, Global Lead, HCP Marketing, Sanofi, affirms this diagnosis: “Misinformation has proliferated in social media, giving a voice to anti-vaccination groups, spreading false information and conspiracy theories.” It is therefore vital that pharma take an active lead in discrediting claims such as profit always being secondary to the health of patients and the public. As Florence Pryen, Head of Business Development, Mendes, points out: “People are now looking for answers to their symptoms online, and trust in their practitioner is lessened. This is an important link, which needs to be strengthened.”

So, what are the public’s legitimate concerns, and how can pharma give consumers credence to meet them with understanding?

Definitions are important, so we must draw a clear distinction between the intentional spreading of falsehoods and sincere concerns, questions, or hesitancies. As Rob Jekielek, Managing Director, The Harris Poll, puts it: “There’s a scale of misinformation if you will. People who are purposely trying to turn others to a very specific agenda — using information that is clearly not fact-based — is a very egregious layer of misinformation. But it is probably more important to think about the 30–35% of the population that are more reluctant or hesitant.” From a public health perspective, these tend to be populations traditionally disenfranchised from the healthcare system: those who aren’t using healthcare resources on a more preventative or proactive basis and are only coming into contact during a visit to A&E.

In considering preventative care, there are lessons to be learnt from other areas of health, including contraception. These are the only other medications, alongside vaccines, that are dispensed to healthy people. Having faced similar challenges in dispelling misconceptions around IUDs, Keren Leshem, CEO, OCON Healthcare, stresses: “When HCPs and the general public don’t have trust in medical innovation, it becomes a big problem. It can slow down innovative treatment solutions that could have a massively positive impact and create a paradigm shift in the way we do medicine today.”

When HCPs and the general public don’t have trust in medical innovation, it becomes a big problem

It can be tempting to dismiss and characterise all hesitancy as ignorance, quackery, or stupidity, but psychology shows that these views only purport elitism and further entrench views and doubts. Simms poses: “How many of us in our industry have actually trawled through the world of anti-vaxx materials or are we just reinforcing our own echo chamber? I have, and what I have seen is actually quite compelling. Anyone without scientific training could find the material very compelling and reasonable.”

When we don’t know something, today’s first port of call is a quick Google search. Avila thinks Silicon Valley tech giants could become valuable assets to pharma in the future: “What if we as an industry worked with Facebook, Amazon, Apple, and Netflix, and partnered on the front-line to identify fake news and provide the right information for both HCPs and patients.” Collaboration is vital, as illustrated through the development of vaccines. “We need the media, HCPs, and authorities to work together to accelerate innovation within healthcare and communicate it transparently and scientifically back it up,” says Leshem.

“Every pandemic has had misinformation; look at AIDS, look at H1N1, look at SARS, and probably even going back to the bubonic plague,” says Jeff Robson, Marketing Manager, Veracyte. The AIDS pandemic was particularly marked by misinformation, Robson highlights that it was initially considered to be an exclusively ‘homosexual disease’. Simms similarly proposes that we look back at history to heed its lessons, as well as borrow approaches from other industries: “What was done to reduce vaccine hesitancy in smallpox in the last century? How did the climate change movement enter the national consciousness when there are people who believe it’s all nonsense? I would not even be slightly surprised if the same principles were at play and could be codified.”

Clear communication of recommendations to patients, their families, and communities could also have substantial impact when it comes to misinformation. “The scientific knowledge, competence, and capacity that lie within a big pharma company are of great value in this battle against misinformation,” says Ana Rita Ferreira, Regional Europe Medical Director, Novartis. “A joint, simple communication from ‘fake-news-free’ sources, where the community can gather clear, accurate information and help to raise awareness of existing reputable platforms, should be developed.” Improving community health literacy will encourage inquisitive mindsets where individuals assess information and its sources, not just amongst the public but HCPs too. Pryen elaborates: “The best position for pharma remains a high scientific profile, building a strong link with the medical community for independent, coherent communication based on available scientific data.”

As the old saying goes: you can take a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. If uptake of COVID-19 vaccines is going to become a widespread reality, pharma must step out of

the shadows and actively reclaim narratives. Through listening and engagement, we can understand how and why misinformation is so rife, address it head-on, and help discover the core truths that are so fundamental to progress in both science and in humanity.

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