Businesses have a role to play in building vaccine trust. Here’s why

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Richard Edelman, President, Edelman & Julie Louise Gerberding, Executive Vice President & Chief Patient Officer, MSD


  • Vaccine hesitancy poses a major threat to recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Building and sustaining public trust and confidence in immunization systems is essential and employers, as trusted messengers of credible information, can play a critical role.
  • With 78% of people saying that businesses have a responsibility to help protect their employees and their communities, the World Economic Forum, Edelman and MSD, is initiating a coalition committed to building and sustaining vaccine confidence and literacy in the workplace.

The destruction wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic defies hyperbole. The devastation to lives, livelihoods, and economies is already incalculable, and the end is not in sight. While everyone is at some risk, the virus has affected our most vulnerable and laid bare the inequities that plague our societies.

But lurking behind the pandemic itself is another force – an alarming reluctance to receive a pandemic vaccine, even one proven to meet high standards for safety and effectiveness.

Population immunity is essential to recovery

As business leaders, we are acutely aware of what is on the line for our companies as we start on the long path to pandemic recovery. But if we fail to accelerate and support efforts toward population immunity, the economic consequences will dwarf what we’ve seen so far.

In the coming months, the World Economic Forum will partner with its member companies to support private sector employers in their efforts to help build confidence in and understanding of vaccines. By facilitating employer access to credible and appropriate information and tools, we can collectively support these trusted stakeholders in their efforts to inform employees and improve confidence.

What is vaccine hesitancy and why does it matter?

The history of vaccines is one of public health successes. While medicines help treat diseases, vaccines can help prevent people from getting sick in the first place. However, despite the successes of vaccination, vaccine hesitancy – defined by the WHO as a “delay in acceptance or refusal of vaccines despite availability of vaccination services,” – threatens to reverse the progress made in combatting serious and preventable infectious diseases.

It’s important to note that vaccine hesitancy is not just about the small but vocal minority of the population that is anti-vaccination. Rather, hesitancy happens along a broad continuum of opinion that ranges from anti-vaccination at one end to vaccine acceptance at the other end. Vaccine hesitancy is complex, and a person’s hesitancy may change depending on the context of time, place, and the specific vaccine.

Unfortunately, vaccine hesitancy is not new nor is it exclusive to any one disease. In fact, even before the current pandemic, more than 90% of countries in the world have been challenged by this threat to public health.

But in the face of COVID-19, vaccine hesitancy poses a major threat, not only to people at risk, but also to businesses and economies around the world.

To help ensure public confidence, scientists, regulators, biopharmaceutical companies, and other leaders have reinforced commitments to ensuring that potential vaccines are tested in accordance with high ethical standards and sound scientific principles. But even if their use is authorized based on robust scientific evidence of safety and effectiveness, these vaccines will be of limited value if people do not accept them. Public trust and confidence are at the core of successful immunization systems. Building and sustaining that trust is essential.

That’s where we as employers play an important role. We must act collectively and with urgency to support that public trust and confidence, and we need your leadership. We are the right messengers for this moment, not only because we are trusted, but because we have a moral and ethical obligation to lead this fight.

The latest Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report: Workplace Trust and the Coronavirusreveals that employees trust their employers to provide credible information about COVID-19. Furthermore, 78% of people say that businesses have a responsibility to ensure their employees are protected from the virus and do not spread it into the community.

In an era when people may be wary of traditional sources of information, such as governments and media, employers are essential messengers of high-quality, reliable information.

Image: Edelman

Public health is a business imperative

Protecting the health of our employees is not only our moral responsibility, but it is also a business imperative – one critical to the restoration of our financial health. In a pre-pandemic world, companies in the United States alone lost an estimated $530 billion per year in illness-related productivity. Promoting the health of our employees, and in turn, investing in global recovery is paramount.

We know that healthy employees help keep our businesses healthy in return. How we embark on this road is critical to the economic sustainability of our communities.

The future will remain in suspended animation unless we leverage our roles as employers to promote a credible, factual understanding of infectious disease, disease prevention, and confidence in vaccination.

We need decisive action right now to end this era of uncertainty and mistrust. When the books about this dark chapter in world history are written, how company leaders performed, or didn’t, will matter. The words of President John F. Kennedy, who dared to stay the course on the space race even after setbacks and defeat, are relevant, “For courage – not complacency – is our need today. Leadership not salesmanship. And the only valid test of leadership is the ability to lead and lead vigorously.”

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