The race to develop a vaccine for the Wuhan coronavirus is progressing at an unprecedented speed and scale, with more than a hundred now in development worldwide. However, scientists’ concentrated efforts to come up with several vaccines in the hopes of developing the best one might be doing more harm than good.
In particular, experts fear that people will have a hard time choosing which vaccine to get once scientists roll out all of the vaccines in development, so much so that most people might choose no vaccine at all.
This is called the paradox of choice, a popular phenomenon in behavioral economics. The idea behind this is that having more options, while appealing at first, has a negative impact on decision-making.
The paradox of choice is best explained through a popular study conducted by psychologists Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper. Their study involved presenting grocery shoppers samples of jam. Some shoppers had six samples to choose from, while other shoppers had 24.
The experiment showed that the 24 samples generated more interest. However, shoppers presented with 24 samples were ten times less likely to buy a jar of jam compared to those presented with only six samples.
Overall, this experiment showed that people are less likely to make a decision when confronted with options. Some might choose the easiest option or default to what others chose, while others might not choose at all.
People who choose from a wide range of options also tend to feel less satisfied with their choice and hesitant over whether or not they made the right choice.
The paradox of choice is harmless when it comes to trivial matters like one’s choice of jam. But as economist Peter Coy puts it, the resulting paralysis or inability to decide given dozens of vaccines could have some very real consequences for the general public and the scientists making the vaccines.
Many people are already hesitant about taking a COVID-19 vaccine because of concerns regarding the many ingredients used and their adverse side effects. Having an extensive array of vaccines might only add to that hesitation, explained Coy.
Already, many Americans have expressed concerns about the safety and effectiveness of possible COVID-19 vaccines. In fact, a new national survey conducted by Pew Research Center from Sept. 8–13 shows a drop in intent to get a COVID-19 vaccine across all major political and demographic groups.
Some experts have also raised concerns that people could be hesitant to take vaccines because they mistrust the motives of the pharmaceutical industry.
While the idea that over 100 vaccines are now in development seems promising, many experts would beg to differ. (Related: Doctor warns that COVID-19 vaccine could alter your DNA.)
In one of his recent op-ed pieces, Michael Kinch, who teaches biochemistry at Washington University in St. Louis, expressed some of his gravest concerns regarding the rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines.
For starters, ensuring that a vaccine’s effects are safe and durable requires several years of monitoring, said Kinch. This is done to avoid creating a bad vaccine, which can cause adverse side effects.
People who unknowingly take bad vaccines unable to protect them from the disease could end up becoming carriers of the disease, spreading it to hundreds, if not thousands, of people. Moreover, a bad vaccine would discourage the use of other vaccines, even those that can be considered safer, wrote Kinch.
Meanwhile, Sarah Pitt, a biomedical scientist who teaches microbiology at the University of Brighton in the U.K., noted that the current techniques being used to develop the COVID-19 vaccines are new.
In fact, no vaccines against viral infections based on those techniques are in general use. Experts would also need to conduct more studies to determine how long immunity provided by the vaccines will last, if at all.
Moreover, research indicates that antibodies produced by the body after a COVID-19 infection can be lost in just a few months. Scientists still need to determine whether vaccine-induced antibodies will act similarly.
Given these pressing concerns, people’s hesitation to take a vaccine and the prediction that many won’t take one, the world might not see COVID-19 vaccines in the near future.
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