We're proud to showcase this case study in our 'Vaccine engagement starts...' series, part of our wider public engagement campaign. Our hope is that, through highlighting a range of the wonderful and impactful activities our members have been carrying out, others will be inspired to begin engaging with the public on vaccines.
BSI member, Professor Danny Altmann is a Professor of Immunology at Imperial College London. He has been providing scientific evidence about COVID-19 vaccines to different audiences, including policymakers to feed into their decisions, journalists to ensure news stories are accurate and healthcare workers to increase their confidence. Here, Danny speaks about how he has been learning the ropes and focussing on understanding concerns, and emphasises the vital role of immunologists in the pandemic.
Learning to meet others halfway
Most of us have done more communication work this year than ever before. And as everything in life, it’s a learning curve. Since the pandemic started, I have spoken about COVID-19 and vaccination in many different settings, from interviews on a range of radio stations and TV programmes to attending healthcare worker meetings and parliamentary hearings. Those are all different audiences and tailoring your message for each one is not as easy as it sounds!
When I think about COVID-19 vaccines, it’s a very simple argument. We have excellent vaccines that will give us a strong immune response and protect us against the disease. What argument could be stronger than that? Well, I’ve had to rewind and re-educate myself – people have complex backgrounds and come at this from different perspectives. There are a lot of reasons for individuals who have vaccine hesitancy to think a certain way, and I have learned that you need to start by discerning and understanding their concerns. Then, you can titrate your response to that audience and begin a productive conversation.
One of the most educational activities I have been doing is attending Zoom meetings with groups of healthcare workers from ethnic minorities. This felt really important to me. I have been providing information about the COVID-19 vaccines but also, I’ve been learning an incredible amount. It really is a two-way street. I have met numerous committed intelligent people who also have doubts and concerns about getting vaccinated. The history behind this is extremely complex, and as an ally, it’s important to come from a point of understanding. Humans aren’t meant to be rational machines – we can be informed and be worried and scared at the same time.
Setting a high standard as immunologists
It’s a bizarre situation in which, every time you turn on the radio or television, you hear your friends and colleagues speaking. This has never happened to us before! As scientists, we’re used to keeping our head down, we don’t shout and scream. But since COVID-19, the hunger for featuring our voices in public discussions has grown immensely.
To me, most of the time, working with journalists feels like a discussion with my journal club. They know a lot and ask very detailed questions; my experience has been almost entirely positive. But there’s a fine balance. There are always some requests that you have to turn down as talking about it might risk inflating something that’s not a story. In certain scenarios, you might want to approach it as a grant panel and make sure you have statistical proof to back up your arguments.
Similarly, working with policymakers has been a positive experience overall. I’ve been impressed by their knowledge, intellectual curiosity and desire to do a good job, and it has actually been very rewarding to be involved and see this in action. As scientists, we have an important role to play in aiding their job to create legislation that is fit for purpose by highlighting what they might have not foreseen.
We should stand together as a community and support each other in this work. Personally, when I hear interviews with my colleagues, I almost always think “that was really clear, there’s not a single word I could have said better”.
Time to get to the battlefront
The stakes are high.
I spent my whole adult life worrying about T cells and B cells and vaccinology. When something like this comes along, the biggest pandemic in our lifetime, this is the time to use all our knowledge in the war against the virus and to help others feel confident about COVID-19 vaccination.
Immunologists, this is the job that you love and that you’ve trained for all your life. It’s not the time to be conscientious objector.
Follow Danny on Twitter @Daltmann10
Are you a BSI member involved in public engagement around COVID-19 vaccines? We'd love to hear from you! Please get in touch with our Marketing & Communications Manager, Teresa Prados, to share your experience as part of our new case study series 'Vaccine engagement starts...'.
Click here to find out more about the BSI's public engagement campaign Vaccine engagement starts at home. We’re always looking for members to help bring the expert immunology voice so if you'd like to get involved with our public engagement work, don't hesitate to contact our Public Engagement Manager, Erika Aquino.