Committee on Environment, Public Health and Safety (ENVI)

The extent of liberty: “As of October 2020, a near 4 million COVID-19 cases have been reported in the EU/EEA and the UK. Anticipating the introduction of a vaccine in 2021, how should the EU tackle the issue of anti-vaccination and enforcement of public health norms whilst respecting citizens’ freedom of choice?”

By Ninni Issakainen (FI)

1. The topic at a glance

The public perception of vaccines in the European Union is largely positive, the majority agreeing that vaccines are important, safe and effective. Simultaneously, there is a large variation in attitudes towards vaccines both between Member States and inside them. This has led to outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles, in multiple European countries. For example, in 2017, 14,000 people contracted measles, more than three times the number in 2016. Currently, following the COVID-19 pandemic, anti-vaccination sentiment has increasingly gained popularity. Many Europeans are increasingly appealing to their freedom of choice to not be vaccinated. However, high rates of vaccination coverage are important in preventing infectious diseases such as measles or COVID-19. The decrease in vaccine confidence and calls for personal freedom not only risk already eradicated diseases returning but they could undermine the effect a vaccine can have at managing the COVID-19 pandemic in the future.

2. Key Actors and Stakeholders 

The European Commission: Compliment the national health policies by proposing legislation, providing financial support, and coordinating and facilitating the exchange of best practices between the EU countries and health experts. They have listed promoting vaccination as one of their current priorities.

European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control: An Agency of the European Union working to strengthen Europe’s defence against communicable diseases. They aim to identify health threats within the EU and work with the Member States to prevent and manage them.

Member States: Hold the primary responsibility for organizing and delivering health services and medical care. This includes building vaccination confidence among their citizens. 

Social media platforms: Sites such as Facebook act as hosts for many anti-vaccination groups and allow them to recruit new members, as well to encourage vaccine scepticism among other users. 

3. Key Conflicts  

Variety of reasons cause Europeans to question the safety and effectiveness of vaccines. Firstly, the historical and political context of each Member State. For example, Germans are apprehensive towards government mandates due to the legacy of the Third Reich, which can influence vaccine attitudes. In France multiple political scandals surrounding vaccines, most notably the 2009 H1N1 crisis, eroded public trust in them. Currently the confidence in vaccines in France is one of the lowest in Europe. Another problem is the spread of disinformation in social media. A study has shown that online platforms have failed to prevent the promotion of Anti-vax misinformation despite condemning it in their guidelines. Because the causes of distrust vary, an effective one-size-fits-all response becomes unattainable. 

This is further complicated by the fact that techniques to increase vaccine coverage like mandatory vaccination are not always efficient. An EU-funded study has found that mandatory vaccination does not necessarily lead to increased vaccine uptake. Indeed, many of its protestors feel like it violates their freedom of choice. This means a large number of sceptics are not anti-vaccine, but against compulsory vaccination. Such sentiments have gained more popularity recently due to the accelerated development rate of a Covid-19 vaccine. This has led people to question its safety.

4. What has been done so far?

– In 2018 the European Council issued a recommendation on strengthening cooperation against vaccine-preventable diseases which has produced actions such as monitoring the attitudes towards vaccination in Member States to offer them assistance based on their needs.

– Establishment of Code of Practice on Disinformation, a set of self-regulatory standards to fight disinformation in social media. So far  online platforms such as Facebook, Google and TikTok have signed the Code, and enforces its policies, for example through limiting ads containing disinformation. However, there are still issues, for example with the platform’s cooperation with fact-checkers and their self-assessment reports procedures.

– The European Commission coordinates a common European response to the coronavirus, one of its aspects being fighting disinformation. This includes cooperation with social media platforms to encourage them to promote authoritative sources, funding research, and providing materials for fact checking. For example, together with the European External Action Service they have exposed over 300 disinformation narratives around COVID-19 on www.EUvsDiSiNFO.eu.

5. Further links

Member States have criticised the Code of Practice on Disinformation

How the COVID-19 vaccine has affected the anti-vaccination movement in Germany

Communication from the Commission on the preparedness for COVID-19 vaccination strategies and vaccine deployment

Council Recommendation on strengthened cooperation against vaccine-preventable diseases