Pharma brands brace for surge in COVID-19 vaccine misinformation

November 12, 2020 · READ

With COVID-19 vaccines now in distribution, pharma brands are on high alert as they anticipate a surge of misinformation on social media.

If this misinformation is allowed to spread unchecked, it will threaten the delivery and adoption of a new vaccine and tarnish the reputation and financial health of the pharma companies responsible for manufacturing it.

What’s more, once the vaccine arrives, this harmful content could inspire a deluge of false adverse events on pharma company-owned and brand-sponsored vaccine social media pages quickly overwhelming pharmacovigilance and drug safety teams responsible for keeping the future vaccine safe and compliant with the FDA and other regulatory governing bodies.

Just as earlier delays and pauses in vaccine clinical trials were weaponized to exacerbate mistrust and suspicion, the news of a potential breakthrough this week brought a fresh social media onslaught against pharmaceutical companies from anti-vaxxers, political activists, and fringe groups such as QAnon.

In the days after a leading drug maker announced that its vaccine is more than 90 percent effective at preventing the COVID-19 infection, false narratives and conspiracy theories began to immediately circulate online.

Twitter accounts, including those of Donald Trump Jr. and Sen. Ted Cruz, cynically questioned the timing of the announcement just days after the presidential election. 

The expected firestorm of vaccine misinformation—sparked by instigators and fanned by influencers—comes amid a global surge in coronavirus infections and only adds to a growing list of “alternative facts” about vaccines that have ebbed and flowed throughout the months of the pandemic.

There have been conspiracy theories that Bill Gates was scheming to implant microchips in people through vaccines at the same time that Trump was pushing to forgo safety measures to get a vaccine sooner.

Now that people are suffering from pandemic fatigue and are spending more time on social media, they are ripe for consuming misinformation. There is a growing perception that a vaccine developed in record time is too new and too untested, even if public health officials give it the green light.

Hesitance and skepticism about getting vaccinated against COVID-19 have grown, with just more than half of Americans in September saying they would or probably would get the vaccine, down from 72% in May.

“We have a new virus coupled with a new way of life—it’s too much newness to people,” said digital sociologist Ysabel Gerrard. “I think the pushback against a COVID-19 vaccine is going to be on a scale we’ve never seen before.”


The vaccine creates the perfect social media storm for pharma brands

Widespread public uncertainty about vaccines, the escalation of misinformation online, and the explosion of social media use have converged into a perfect storm for pharma brands, especially those who eventually deploy the future COVID-19 vaccine.

Pharmaceutical companies already face the daunting challenge of complying with adverse event reporting requirements. If they are forced to contend with a flood of false reports once the vaccine enters the market, it can disrupt the adoption of a new vaccine and malign their brands.

The intensifying amount of user-generated content—both truthful and malicious—on social media platforms makes it more and more likely that potential adverse events shared on brand-owned social media pages supporting a future vaccine could be missed and go unreported. This would compromise the integrity of the new vaccine and prompt regulatory action by the FDA and EMA.

The pressure on pharmacovigilance and drug safety teams would be extraordinary, potentially crippling efforts of pharma brands working as fast as they can to get a critical vaccine to nearly eight billion people and end a devastating global pandemic.

“When one or more vaccines are ultimately approved for distribution, they will need to be delivered to most of the planet’s inhabitants,” said Joe Rymsza in PharmaTimes. “While there is tremendous urgency to create and scale these treatments quickly, this cannot come at the detriment of safety and efficacy, lest it contribute to a much larger problem than we currently face.”

Safety and pharmacovigilance teams must be more equipped than ever to monitor and report potential adverse events in real-time from clinical development to the post-approval phases—as the number of vaccine recipients rockets from tens of thousands to millions and billions, involving every kind of population cohort imaginable. These kinds of big data and advanced analytics scenarios on such crash timing cry out for a major assist from artificial intelligence and other emergent technologies and approaches.”

There are profound concerns over adverse event reporting

According to a new survey Resolver just completed with FiercePharma, concerns with adverse reporting on social media are very real already, even outside of a global vaccine rollout. The results of the new survey show adverse events are being missed both internally and by their external partners responsible for detecting them.

Ninety-seven percent reported at least one potential adverse event missed, with 41% reporting four to five potential adverse events missed, and 25% reporting more than five potential adverse events missed in the past year.

Thirty-two percent reported using an external agency partner to detect potential adverse events on brand/ company-owned social media pages, with 43% using an internal social media team and 13% using an enterprise social monitoring solution.

Seventy-one percent said they were either slightly or very concerned about how their marketing teams or contracted agency partners are managing potential adverse event detection on social media.

Fifty-one percent confirmed that their marketing teams or their contracted agency partners missed a potential adverse event on social media in the past year.

Seventy-five percent reported seeing an increase in social media activity among internal marketing teams or their contracted marketing agency partners on owned social media pages in the past year.

A significant number of pharmacovigilance, compliance, and drug safety leaders were also troubled by inconsistencies, irregularities, and ineptitude in the process. Those surveyed cited the following specific concerns about adverse event detection on social media:

  • Inconsistent adverse event record-keeping or quality control (52%).
  • Inconsistent social media page management across regions or countries by global marketing teams (48%).
  • Irregularities in how brand/company-owned social media pages are moderated (48%). 
  • Inexperienced external agency partners (40%) or unqualified external monitoring or agency partners who lack an understanding of the pharma space and requirements for remaining compliant (29%).

And this is today, before an anticipated surge in misinformation due to a vaccine release. When you consider the scale and magnitude of delivering a vaccine globally, these concerns will be dramatically amplified. 

Maintaining a safe and compliant social media presence

Recognizing the keen interest in health care and the advantages of engaging directly with consumers online, pharma brands have cautiously become more active on social media channels. Beyond a means of communicating with consumers and those seeking information about medications and therapies, a social media presence gives them the ability to raise both brand and product awareness and gain insights into consumer experiences with their products. During the distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine, this two-way dialogue with patients will be essential to its success.

The stakes have never been higher for failing to address the issues posed by comments on potential adverse events and product complaints posted on social media or the wider web. Pharma brands need to have a global solution in place that is drug-specific, continually-tuned, and delivers 24/7 compliance on potential adverse events.

While it’s regrettable that the promising development of a COVID-19 vaccine should cause pangs of anxiety for pharma brands, that’s the state of the social media world in which we live.

Pharmaceutical companies that have chosen to engage with consumers online have learned the undeniable value of meeting them where they are en masse. No matter how challenging the prospect of catching all potential adverse events may seem, handling a torrent of misinformation from online instigators can be managed effectively—and your brand can reap the multiple benefits of an active social media presence.

Instead of vexing on the potential pain of social media, get a prescription to connect with consumers—all while protecting your brand from financial and reputational harm.

With an early-warning risk intelligence solution designed to detect potential adverse events, pharma brands can seamlessly integrate adverse event detection with existing pharmacovigilance reporting and stay ahead of any unknown issues surfacing online.

Then, instead of focusing on conflicts and contention, pharma brands can use their social media platforms as a place for people to learn about a COVID-19 vaccine. By ensuring that consumers have a reliable source for answers to their questions about the vaccine, you can help regulate the rhetoric online and make the argument for the public health imperative of being vaccinated.

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