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Misleading messages contribute to eroding trust in public health agencies.
People often embrace information sources that align with their personal beliefs and reject opposing viewpoints that they do not want to hear. When the source of the information is not subject to fact-checking or ethical standards, inaccurate information, disinformation, and outright conspiracy theories replace science-based expert insight and facts.
Disinformation from many different—and sometimes unknown sources—is contributing to a growing credibility problem for institutions normally entrusted with public health decisions. At the same time, actions by some of those institutions, including the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), FDA, and biopharma companies, may be lowering public trust in vital health matters.
Missteps, such as the September 2020 release, then retraction by the US CDC of a guidance on airborne transmission of the virus (1), undermine confidence in the very institutions that should be the “gold standard” for health information.
The credibility of pharmaceutical development, public health authorities, and FDA are in question, as illustrated in a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) (2). A majority of people (62%) surveyed from Aug. 28–Sept. 3, 2020 said they are concerned that pressure from the Trump Administration will cause FDA to rush approval of a vaccine without ensuring it is safe and effective. About 40% said FDA and CDC are paying too much attention to politics when reviewing and approving treatments or issuing guidelines and recommendations.
Despite the volume of information published by credible sources, the KFF survey found that nearly half of the respondents held at least one misconception about six coronavirus-related facts about the existence of a cure or vaccine, the effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine, whether children can transmit the virus, and the wearing of face masks.
When KFF conducted the survey in April 2020, 83% of respondents said they had a “fair amount” or “great deal” of trust in the CDC; in the latest study, that number dropped to 67%. Trust in Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the leading government figure on pandemic response, declined;78% of respondents in the April poll said they had a “fair amount” or “great deal” of trust in Fauci compared with only 68% in the September poll.
In an open letter issued in early September 2020, leaders of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization urged biopharmaceutical companies to ensure the “integrity, transparency, and objective assessment” of clinical data when seeking drug and vaccine approvals. Top executives of nine companies developing COVID-19 vaccines promised to adhere to the scientific process and regulatory guidelines and prioritize patient safety (3). And, career FDA leaders maintained that the agency is committed to science, while acknowledging it operates in a political environment (4).
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a new, unnerving experience for society. Scientific and medical communities scrambled to research, react, and develop appropriate medical responses. The lack of a coordinated, authoritative message about best practices to control the virus spread has fueled more than infections; it has sown distrust that will undermine further response and recovery.
1. M. Mishra, “US CDC Takes Down Coronavirus Airborne Transmission Guidance,” www.reuters.com, Sept. 21, 2020.
2. H. Hamel, et. al., “KFF Health Tracking Poll–September 2020: Top Issues in 2020 Election, The Role of Misinformation, and Views on A Potential Coronavirus Vaccine,” www.kff.org, Sept. 10, 2020.
3. J. Wechsler, “FDA’s “Gold Standard” Critical for Biopharma R&D,” www.PharmTech.com, Sept. 8, 2020.
4.Pharmaceutical Technology, “Career FDA Leaders Say Science Is Agency’s Guide,” www.PharmTech.com, Sept. 11, 2020.
Rita Peters is the editorial director of Pharmaceutical Technology.
Vol. 44, No. 10
When referring to this article, please cite it as R. Peters, “Fighting the (Dis)Information Pandemic,” Pharmaceutical Technology 44 (10) 2020.