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Opinion: Taking advantage of public perceptions and the FDA vaccine approval

In my opinion, the FDA’s approval of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine is another example of how they manipulate language, based on what they know about public attitudes and perceptions toward COVID-19, to gain compliance. Studies meant to determine which measures need to be taken to gain conformity are conducted on the public through social media outlets.

For instance, the journal, JMIR Public Health and Surveillance, ran a study where they infiltrated social media groups to gauge public perceptions concerning face mask use and social distancing. The purpose was to learn how to frame their message more effectively, in real time, in response to noncompliant attitudes. This study was so successful, they state their intentions to use the same model to “study the perceptions of other interventions by public health authorities.”

One of these important health interventions is, of course, the vaccine. The message coming from the public health sector is that hesitant people can now feel safe in getting the shot because the FDA has issued its final approval. It is true, many people were unsure of the vaccines safety because it had not been approved by the FDA. This is an attitude that was likely learned through studies like the one published in the JMIR Journal.

I did a Google Scholar search on COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy and there is no shortage of studies which purport to identify the reasons people are hesitant. It just so happens, there is one citing people’s concerns about the safety of the shot and its rapid pace of development in a journal called Nature Medicine. 

The vaccine has barely been available to the public for eight months, and they already have a model from which to study people’s attitudes, and their reluctance to get vaccinated. It is called the “the 5C model of the drivers of vaccine hesitancy.” 

The 5C model of the drivers of vaccine hesitancy’, provides five main individual person — level determinants for vaccine hesitancy: confidence, complacency, convenience (or constraints), risk calculation, and collective responsibility. Promoting the uptake of vaccines (particularly those against COVID-19) will require understanding whether people are willing to be vaccinated, the reasons why they are willing or unwilling to do so, and the most trusted sources of information in their decision-making.”

They do these studies, so they know how to target certain people for attitude change. It was found one of the most trusted sources for vaccine information were health care workers. Therefore, they use Doctors to push the message. It is also believed that most people trust Government. This was a key finding in a study which sought to determine how to persuade people to wear face masks in 2014. Pushing the message that the FDA has approved the vaccine is specifically designed to target those who are hesitant, based on what they understand about their reasoning.

Did the FDA approve the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, or is this just language designed to manipulate the public into believing they did? The information is confusing and could lead people to either believe the vaccine has received full approval, or, that it still being used under the Emergency Use Authorization. For example, one of the FDA’s approval letters, dated August 23, 2021, gives the impression that the vaccine is being approved under the EUA letter dated August 12, 2021.

On August 23, 2021, FDA approved the biologics license application (BLA) submitted by BioNTech Manufacturing GmbH for COMIRNATY (COVID-19 vaccine, mRNA) for active immunization to prevent COVID-19 caused by SARS-CoV-2 in individuals 16 years of age and older. On August 23, 2021, having concluded that revising this EUA is appropriate to protect the public health or safety under section 564(g) (2) of the Act, FDA is reissuing the August 12, 2021 letter of authorization in its entirety with revisions incorporated to clarify that the EUA will remain in place for the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for the previously-authorized indication and uses, and to authorize use of COMIRNATY (COVID-19 vaccine, mRNA) under this EUA for certain uses that are not included in the approved BLA. 

On the other hand, the other letter, also dated August 23, 2021, states that a COVID-19 vaccine was in fact licensed and authorized for use under license number 2229 by The Department of Health and Human Services. Interestingly, and I am having a hard time processing this, the letter also states the request for licensing was not referred to a vaccine advisory committee because “the clinical study design and clinical trials did not bring up concerns or controversial issues.” This is noteworthy because in both the FDA and Pfizer press releases it is made clear the vaccine is still in clinical trials, and it is unknown what the long-term health effects are. That seems a little controversial. 

There is also the question as to what was used in the development of this vaccine as the CDC has admitted there were no virus isolates available when they developed the testing procedure to diagnose the disease. This has led to high rates of false positives and the CDC halting the use of the PCR tests by December of this year. Also, controversial.

I am not a doctor, I am a writer who specializes in techniques of behavioral research, conditioning, and persuasion. I also know they have a vaccine they want to give a population who, for the most part, is rejecting it. Whether the vaccine was fully approved, or it is still being used under the EUA matters little in the context of this article. It is clear they believed more people would accept the vaccine if it was FDA approved, and they came to this determination using the studies mentioned earlier. 

In my last article I mentioned something called THE Heuristic/Sufficiency Principle, which states people rarely take the time to retrieve pertinent information, from their memories, to apply it to a decision they must make now. This essentially means they do not believe you can research anything on your own or come to any sensible conclusions about information they are giving you. This principle comes from decades of communications research into people’s reactions to media messaging. There is also something called the Elaboration Likelihood Model of Persuasion. 

This is a media model of persuasive communications which places people into two categories. Those who give a thoughtful analysis based on past experiences, and the merits of the information being presented into consideration before changing their position, and those who do not. This is known as taking the central or peripheral route of persuasion.

The peripheral route suggests that attitude change can occur because people’s ability to process the information is low, and all it takes are simple “cues to action” in the messaging to produce the desired effect. The central route is just the opposite and requires tweaking of the message. It is necessary to separate the public into those who may have a genuine interest in the message, and those who do not, when it comes to crafting information meant to influence behavior. The most important element is how the information presented is perceived to have a direct impact on the individual. 

This is useful information to people who design the research studies, like the ones mentioned from JMIR Public Health and Surveillance, and Nature Medicine, when determining which people need to be targeted with persuasive messages. People were hesitant to receive the COVID-19 vaccine because it was fast tracked, and until this week, not approved by the FDA.

They can now target these people specifically by saying the vaccine has received full approval. The information being provided is so confusing that they believe a simple cue, like FDA approval, is all it will take to encourage resistors to go ahead and just get the shot. This is the message now being pounded continuously into our brains. Many people will remain skeptical as this full authorization seems to have been done too quickly, and despite what the FDA claims, is surrounded by confusion and controversy. 

The bigger point of this article was not to prove one way or the other the status of the approval, but to show that there is a concerted effort to use social science models of behavior to gauge public opinion, so they can tweak the message as necessary to gain the desired compliance with the vaccine agenda. Our attitudes and perceptions toward media messaging are always being evaluated, and they learn in real time, through our participation in social media, what it is we believe and how to change the message. 

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