Crick scientists influencing the COVID-19 vaccine uptake

Crick researchers Faith Uwadiae and Rajvee Shah Punatar are using their scientific expertise to encourage people to take up their COVID-19 vaccination. Here, Faith and Rajvee share their thoughts on myths, misinformation and why science communication should come from a trusted voice.

Faith Uwadiae

Faith is a postdoctoral fellow working between the Malaria Immunology Laboratory and Immunity & Cancer Laboratory. Faith’s research aims to understand the immunological link between malaria and a type of cancer called Burkitt’s Lymphoma.

Faith Uwadiae

I’m part of a Vaccine Confidence Project called #TeamHalo. We’re group of 30 scientists and clinicians from around the world working on this UN-verified initiative to help end the pandemic with safe and effective vaccines. I make short videos on TikTok to give people facts about COVID-19 vaccines to make them feel confident about their decision to get vaccinated. 

At the Crick, I’m a postdoctoral training fellow working between two of the Crick’s immunology labs. My research uses mouse models to investigate the link between malaria and the paediatric cancer Burkitt’s Lymphoma. So although it’s not directly related to COVID, my expertise is in the same field. At around time I joined Team Halo, I was having worrying conversations with friends and family about COVID-19 vaccines and noticing a lot of misinformation on my social media too. 

These myths ranged from the possible impacts of the vaccine on fertility, to vaccine alternatives such as herbal remedies. I also noticed discussions arguing that vaccines alter DNA, or that vaccines contain a microchip, pork or alcohol. This kind of misinformation is spreading very quickly on social media or via WhatsApp groups, where messages go viral and are forwarded to multiple people. 

If I can get one person that is vaccine hesitant to decide to take the vaccine, that is great.

I realised that most of this is built on existing mistrust and tiny fragments of science that have been interpreted incorrectly. This is why the Team Halo project is so important, as we’re counterbalancing misinformation by communicating facts based on scientific evidence. 

I try to cover a wide range of topics in my TikTok videos. I’ve created a video about how the vaccine was created so quickly and why it’s safe, a video called ‘How do vaccines work? By giving your body a cheat code!’ and other videos that respond directly to specific concerns. I also filmed myself getting the vaccine and explained some of the side-effects I experienced. It’s actually been a lot of fun putting them together.

One of my videos focuses on vaccine hesitancy within BAME communities. We know that individuals from Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups are more likely to be disproportionally affected by the pandemic, but they are also more likely to have concerns about getting the vaccine. These are valid concerns that are not purely down to misinformation. People from BAME backgrounds experience structural racism and discrimination within the medical system, and we know that health inequalities exist. That’s why messages around vaccines need to come from a source that is trusted.

The Team Halo project has now received over 50 million likes on TikTok. I wasn’t on TikTok before I joined Team Halo, but I have learnt what a powerful tool it can be to communicate science. If I can get one person that is vaccine hesitant to decide to take the vaccine, that is great. It has made me so happy to know that I am part of a team of people making a difference. 

The pandemic has highlighted the importance effective science communication and I’m hopeful that we will all learn from this and give more thought to how we communicate science and research in the future.  

Rajvee Shah Punatar

Rajvee is a Principal Laboratory Research Scientist in the DNA Recombination and Repair Laboratory, which studies how our DNA is repaired after being damaged and how defects in this process can lead to cancer.

Rajvee Shah

In March last year, one week before lockdown, my household contracted COVID-19 and we lost a family member as a result. It was devastating and we felt completely helpless. Then I started seeing misinformation circulating on social media insisting that the disease is a hoax, or that there are simple cures available. This was very distressing to me. 

I am proud to have been a member of the West lab for over 20 years now. In more normal times, I work on my own research projects, as well as training and supporting our PhD students and postdocs, and managing the day-to-day smooth running of the lab. When the lab shut down last March, I decided to repurpose my skills as a volunteer on the Crick’s COVID-19 testing pipeline and then in the Crick-UCLH vaccination centre. 

This experience has taught me that we as scientists need to be more pro-active in tackling misinformation and myths – not just in our day-to day lives, but in a very public-facing way. 

It was just before the first vaccines were approved that I saw fake news circulating in WhatsApp groups that I’m part of. Coming from a South Asian (Gujarati) background, I was worried that vaccine uptake in my community would be badly affected. I tried to counter any myths whenever I came across them with scientific facts and evidence, but they were spreading virally. Vaccine mistrust is highest in BAME communities, and this is not unique to COVID-19.

Not long before the pandemic, I gave a talk to around 400 people from my Gujarati community about being a scientist, which is still considered an unusual career choice among this group. Its success inspired me to reach out during the pandemic, and together with some medical colleagues, we organised educational webinars aimed at our community about COVID-19, vaccines and how to identify and counter myths.  

Since December, I have taken part in four of these webinars. The first two were in English, where the Zoom audience limit of 1,000 devices was reached within a few minutes of the start. We then decided to target the over 70s (as they would be called up for vaccination first) and organised YouTube webinars in my mother tongue of Gujarati. 

These took place in January and in one webinar, we had over 3,000 devices logging in live. The subsequent YouTube video has been viewed over 22,000 times since. We’ve had a lot of positive feedback and from surveys and personal messages, we know that we have been able to successfully change people’s minds from reluctance to taking up the vaccine.

This experience has taught me that we as scientists need to be more pro-active in tackling misinformation and myths – not just in our day-to day lives, but in a very public-facing way. 

Communication that is accessible and targeted can be very effective, especially when people see the message coming from speakers they can relate to, and of the same background. I believe it is the best way for scientists and medical professionals to gain the trust and respect of the public going forward.

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