The biggest question about the coronavirus vaccines that are in the early stage of distribution is whether they will work as effectively as advertised.
The nation’s scientists, some of them supported by billions of dollars in funding from the government, defied all odds to produce and test vaccines in just nine months. Two have been approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration, and Vice President Mike Pence has been among those photographed receiving the vaccine.
We should know within a few weeks whether the vaccine is preventing recipients from developing signs of infection, such as a fever, shortness of breath and the loss of taste or smell. The public also should be told what percentage of recipients develop an adverse reaction to the vaccine.
Which leads to the second most important question: How many Americans will decide to get the vaccine? Medical specialists say that if too many choose not to — and plenty of people say they plan to decline — it will slow the nation’s ability to get the virus under control.
It would help to have some images of celebrities getting vaccinated, with the goal of convincing people that they should do it, too.
This is not a new idea. The Washington Post included a feature last weekend about the strategies experts used in the 1950s to convince young people to get vaccinated against the crippling, lethal polio virus.
“In 1956, a huge number of teenagers were refusing or neglecting to get the polio vaccine developed by Jonas Salk,” the Post reported. “So the March of Dimes recruited Elvis Presley, then 21 years old, to help. He agreed, smiling as he received an injection during a photo shoot just before he played ‘Hound Dog’ on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show.’”
Afterward, when some teenagers got their vaccine, they received a photo of Elvis getting his shot. Maybe the same sort of plan would be useful today — have celebrities who command a lot of attention encourage people to get vaccinated.
This, of course, leads to entertaining speculation about just who might convince vaccine skeptics to reconsider. Actors, singers and athletes come to mind immediately — people such as Taylor Swift and Beyoncé have plenty of fans and social media followers. And a certain president who has millions of followers on Twitter also might make a difference.
Going back to Elvis, a historian who studied his impact on polio shots reported that it was marginal. What made a bigger difference was when the March of Dimes asked teens why they weren’t getting the vaccine. It turned out some were scared of needles and others saw themselves as able to ward off any illness.
So the March of Dimes turned teens into vaccine advocates. Popular students got their shot in front of classmates, and dances were staged for those who had been vaccinated.
The PR efforts worked. By the end of the decade, polio cases were down by 90 percent.
Then in the 60s came a later version of the vaccine, this one developed by Albert Sabin, that was swallowed instead of injected. It became, according to the website history.com, more popular than the Salk vaccine because it was less expensive to make and because — Elvis’ example notwithstanding — there were no needles.