The Next Covid Crisis: What If People Won’t Take A Vaccine?

Fewer than 50% of those polled now say they would be willing to take a vaccine, versus 70% in April. How do we bridge the trust gap?

Alex Gorsky, Chairman and CEO, Johnson & Johnson

When it comes to getting through the Covid-19 crisis, most CEOs we talk to expect a vaccine will soon be the answer to what—literally—ails us, allowing for the resumption of normal life for billions of people globally and putting the economy back on track.

But even as hope for the vaccine grows—with surprisingly optimistic news out of Johnson & Johnson Wednesday—that scenario has a deep flaw imbedded in its heart: What if there’s a vaccine, but many people aren’t willing to take it?

Welcome to what could be the next big Covid crisis. If poll results presented at a Wednesday gathering of CEOs of many of the nation’s largest companies are to be believed, the prognosis for people taking a vaccine is diminishing by the month, even as the potential for an effective vaccine increases by the day.

Optimistic news broke on the vaccine front just before Yale’s Chief Executive Leadership Institute Summit, convened virtually on Wednesday by Yale professor and longtime Chief Executive columnist Jeffrey Sonnenfeld. Johnson & Johnson announced they’d be moving their Covid-19 vaccine into an enormous phase 3 trial. J&J’s version of the vaccine could have enormous logistical benefits over others—including requiring only a single dose and only refrigeration, not freezing, for storage and transport.

“We announced today that, following our phase 1 results, we are now entering a phase 3 trial of over 60,000 patients,” J&J’s Chairman and CEO Alex Gorsky told CEOs at the Yale Summit. “The early results have been promising, but as I think all of us would agree, we need to go through the phase 3 trials to get those results confirmed.”

Yet, according to data presented at the Yale Summit by Morning Consult, a Washington-DC based market research outfit, the number of Americans that say they are likely to take a Covid-19 vaccine has fallen sharply over the past few months. Fewer than 50% of those polled now say they would be willing to take a vaccine, versus 70% in April. According to Morning Consult, just 31% of Black adults say they would be willing to take a vaccine.

Credit: Morning Consult

The numbers don’t appear to be driven by political affiliation, either. According to Morning Consult, while there was, earlier in the year, a small gap between Democrats and Republicans willing to take a vaccine (with more Democrats willing to take it), that delta has now effectively vanished amid dwindling faith in public health officials and the government’s response to Covid.

Among the CEOs at the session, 84% said the U.S. was performing worse in battling and containing Covid versus other industrialized nations; 65% said they thought the Trump Administration’s response to the Covid crisis had hurt, not helped, their businesses; and a stunning 87% said that many fewer Americans could have died as a result of Covid if the U.S. government had mounted a more vigorous response.

“With that in mind, I think the narrative turns to ‘what are people seeing? How do you focus on safety to talk about increasing support?,’” said Kyle Dropp, Co-Founder and Chief Research Officer of Morning Consult.

His research points to two candidates: Primary care physicians and businesses, particularly pharmaceutical companies. Among those he’d polled, primary care physicians have the greatest positive impact on convincing people to get vaccinated. Meanwhile, Dropp said, reputation numbers for the ten largest pharma companies had gone from about 17% positive to more than 27% positive over the last year.

Gorsky and Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla, who was also at the Yale Summit, said they’d been talking weekly about vaccine development, and said the big players throughout the pharmaceutical industry were all working in concert to deliver a vaccine as soon, and as safely, as possible.

“When it comes to the public trust, the business community also can play a role,” said Bourla. “Obviously, scientists are the ones that need to speak, but the profound impact that vaccination—or not—will have on the economic, social and political life means it’s extremely important and I think businesses need to step up and also add their voice because people right now are confused. They don’t know what to believe and who to believe. The decision to vaccinate or not is not affecting only your health, which, at the end of the day is your decision, but it affects the health of others. Because if you don’t vaccinate, you’re becoming the weak link.”

“Our number one priority here is to demonstrate safety, to make sure this is accessible,” said Gorsky. “And frankly that’s the best hope we have of making a significant difference with the virus as we move through the rest of this year and into next year.”

Dan Bigman
Dan Bigman is Editor and Chief Content Officer of Chief Executive Group, publishers of Chief Executive, Corporate Board Member, ChiefExecutive.net, Boardmember.com and StrategicCFO360. Previously he was Managing Editor at Forbes and the founding business editor of NYTimes.com.