Vaccine misinformation on social media is out of control, but we should expect better from the mainstream media

Mar 24, 2021

I am surely not alone in being angry that The Australian would accept Clive Palmer’s money and let him publish dangerous, inaccurate claims about our Covid vaccination program.

Palmer is suggesting that safety procedures for the vaccine rollout are inadequate, seemingly ignorant of our safety processes for assessing possible vaccines and confusing our procedures with those used in the US. Our Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) did not allow on “emergency” grounds the vaccines we will use but rather endorsed the vaccine after the completion of all due safety measures.

Palmer also declared that no one should be given vaccines unless they “were in immediate danger of dying”. That’s a novel use of a preventative tactic!

Surely someone in senior management at The Australian could have seen that, in the middle of a pandemic and the struggle to overcome high rates of vaccine hesitancy in Australia, it was unethical to allow Palmer to make erroneous claims that could influence some people?

When challenged, the newspaper’s editor-in-chief agreed that Palmer’s views on vaccination were “wrong” but said: “The Australian accepts political advertising from across the spectrum. This should obviously never be interpreted as an endorsement of the messages those advertisements carry. The Australian supports the Covid-19 vaccination program and disagrees with Mr Palmer’s perspective on the matter.”

I believe this is unacceptable behaviour.

Then we have the irresponsible airing of Covid misinformation on Sky News. From Day 1 of our struggle with this latest Sars virus, Alan Jones has been an influential source of misinformation. Then we have the long interviews with Craig Kelly, so wedded to erroneous beliefs about the effectiveness of Hydroxychloroquine and Ivermectin in preventing Covid-19 that he was prepared to “fall on his sword” rather than moderate those opinions.

I’d argue that Craig Kelly, like Matt Canavan, does not have the qualifications to analyse the quality of published science. Nor, it seems, can they accept the summaries of the validity of these studies published by such reputable sources as the World Health Organisation, the Centres for Disease Control in the US and top journals in the field such as Nature.

While early papers supported the position taken by Kelly, many more papers analysed faults with them in reaching such conclusions. The later papers present far better data that throws doubt on the use of these two potentially dangerous drugs. As a result, top scientists and scientific organisations from around the world have signalled that there is insufficient positive data to support using the drugs and that to do so would be unethical.

Why did Sky New allow Kelly to air unscientific conclusions without immediately following up with experts who would counter the misinformation? In such a serious situation as a pandemic, surely that is the only reasonable reporting approach?

What about the airing of Senator Canavan’s concerns about the safety of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which is destined to be our “go to” vaccine?

He commented on the news that three people who had received the AZ vaccine had developed blood clots soon after. AstraZeneca pointed out that 17 million people had so far received the vaccine and that among such a large cohort a few cases of anything could be expected. Blood clots forming spontaneously are well documented. The latest studies document just seven cases among 20 million vaccinations.

Remarkably, despite reassurances from the WHO, the CDC and distinguished epidemiologists that there was no need to suspend the vaccination program, numerous countries in Europe did so. This was so irrational scientifically that EU insiders are suggesting the decision was all about the politics of the war European nations are waging against AZ, which is based in Europe. Many in Europe claim the vaccine should be given to all Europeans before being distributed to the rest of the world. This is believed to be what triggered the reaction. The story will unfold.

Speaking on Sky News, Canavan said there were “serious concerns” (about the AZ vaccine) that must be looked into. “I don’t think all the capitals of Europe have been overtaken by anti-vaccine zealots. There is obviously legitimate concerns here,” Canavan said. “I just don’t think we can close our eyes to this evidence. The end goal has to be the health and safety of Australians.”

There was widespread bipartisan condemnation of Canavan’s comments, with many senior politicians saying the vaccine was safe and the rollout would continue as planned. Yes, Sky invited Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly to set the record straight after the Canavan interview, but why was a non-expert like Canavan given a microphone in the first place to raise doubts about the vaccine in the minds of some viewers?

Data released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics documents vaccine hesitancy in the community; while 73% of Australians would be willing to get a COVID vaccine if it is recommended to them, only 58% will try to get the vaccine as soon as it becomes available.

The most common influential factors are whether the vaccine has been in use for a long time with no serious side-effects (67%), and whether it has been recommended by their GP or another healthcare professional (61%).

The Bureau of Statistics data found men (76%) were more likely than women (71%) to agree to vaccination, as were people aged 65 and over (83%) compared to those aged 18–64 years (71%).

The struggle is on to ensure Australians embrace the vaccine and to understand that most Australians must be fully vaccinated in a short period of time to minimise the development of new, more infectious strains. The last thing we need is the mainstream media constantly propagating misinformation for the sake of generating some ‘entertaining controversy’.

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