For many months now, the world's focus has been on COVID-19 vaccines. When are they coming? Who will develop them? How quickly? Who will get them first?
When rollouts began in December 2020, we breathed a collective sigh of relief, but scientists behind the scenes knew the battle wasn't over yet. The World Health Organization and other official bodies tackling coronavirus have repeatedly warned that the spread of misinformation may prove just as dangerous — and certainly as infectious — as the disease itself.
It was this thinking that inspired the creation of Team Halo, a U.N.-backed project that has brought together more than 50 scientists from across the globe working in vaccinology, immunology, health research, social sciences, and more.
Harnessing the unprecedented potential of TikTok to reach millions of people in a short amount of time, these scientists use their insider knowledge and technical expertise to talk about the COVID vaccine and dispel any myths around it.
I chatted to five Team Halo "guides" about why they decided to join up and the power of — and the dire need for — accurate information.
On March 17, 2020, Daniela Ferreira, Ph.D. woke up with a sick feeling in her stomach. England was on day two of full national lockdown, and she hadn’t slept much the night before.
As a professor of respiratory vaccines and infection immunology, she had been following reports about a strange new lung condition in China for weeks beforehand. “When I told people we were looking at at least a year of disruption, they were like, ‘Are you crazy?’”
Ferreira knew her team at Liverpool’s School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM) would likely be called on to help fight the novel coronavirus. “We felt we had the skills to help with this pandemic because I myself had been testing and developing vaccines for 20 years, and as a team we’d been doing it together for 10.” Within a few weeks, they got a call from Oxford University asking for help with the organising and analysing of trials for a new vaccine they’d developed.
“It was literally 24/7. There were no weekends. There were no nights off,” recalls Ferreira, whose official role is head of clinical sciences at LSTM. “Some days we had 130 participants coming in and, because of social distancing, we had to be very organised, it was one in, one out. We worked ridiculous hours.” Ferreira says she would be in the lab until 3 a.m. some nights and be back at her desk by 7 a.m. the next morning.
“What's the point of developing a vaccine if people won't take it? There isn't one.”
With a young child at home, things were even more difficult, but she says her LSTM team — most of whom were women with children, too — were a massive support. “We would put our kids to bed and then start planning the next day of work together via WhatsApp,” she says.
It was for her team, her daughter, and all the nights of sleep she missed that Ferreira joined Team Halo. “A vaccine is only as good as the uptake by people,” she tells me, explaining that she couldn’t bear to see her work go to waste. “There is a lot of fake information out there,” she says, adding that back home in Brazil (Ferreira grew up in Campinas, just outside of São Paulo), even the president himself is spreading outlandish lies about the vaccine. “What's the point of developing a vaccine if people won't take it? There isn't one,” she says.
It's an uphill battle and, after one of the toughest years of her professional life, does Ferreira feel it’s all been worth it?
“Yes,” she says, “if I can inspire not only my daughter but other girls to study science and realise they can help the world. I never imagined that my work would be able to help the world in the way that it was able to — not only in 2020 but in years to come when normality will return because we have a vaccine. And that’s an amazing feeling.”
Early on in the pandemic, it became clear that Black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) groups were being disproportionately affected by the virus. At the same time, however, these communities were hesitant to become involved in clinical trials or to take the vaccines once they became available.
Science communicator Shamaila Anwar, Ph.D. — herself the daughter of Pakistani immigrants — explains that the reasons behind this hesitancy are varied and complex. “Certainly from my community, the concerns probably are not so much the pandemic or the virus itself, but a lot deeper than that,” she says. “What becomes apparent is that there is a long-standing mistrust of government institutions fuelled by a history of structural racism and systematic discrimination. In order to establish trust, we need to acknowledge our past failings and not ignore any concerns.”
“Our lives depend on not only identifying an effective vaccine, but also an actual will to take it.”
Speaking about the biggest anxieties among her community, Anwar says, “People were worried they were going to be used as guinea pigs for experimental vaccines or that corners had been cut in their development. Plus, there were more spiritual considerations, like how do we reconcile being part of a clinical trial with our faith?”
In an effort to reach her community and address their concerns, Anwar decided to sign up with Team Halo in November 2020. “Our lives depend on not only identifying an effective vaccine, but also an actual will to take it,” she says.
Through her TikTok videos, she answers questions such as “Can you take the vaccine during Ramadan?” and “Are COVID vaccines halal?” She also posts adorable videos with her mum Tasnim (most of which are in Urdu) to encourage older members of the community to get vaccinated.
Anwar is facilitating connections with people offline, too, liaising with local community and religious leaders about how to engage with those who follow and trust them.
“It was quite a profound experience," Anwar says about her work with Team Halo. "For the first time ever, I have seen my community gain a voice and take control like never before. There has been a real shift in culture, which has been great to see and I'd like to think that I've played my little part in that.”
When England’s first lockdown was announced in March 2020, Anna Blakney, Ph.D. was in the midst of her final year as a postdoctoral fellow at Imperial College London. Little did she know that those final months in the immunology lab would be among her most important — and most stressful — to date.
When we speak 11 months and three lockdowns later, Blakney is Zooming in from her new office at The University of British Columbia, where she recently established her own (eponymous) lab. Looking back, she can’t believe that her time at Imperial ended with such a dramatic crescendo, especially since she and her team had been working on RNA vaccines (the type used by Pfizer and Moderna, which reads the virus's genetic sequence to make a protein that fights it off) for years before COVID hit.
From March 2020 up until her last day in December, Blakney was helping with Imperial’s COVID efforts. That meant making RNA and different vaccine formulations in the lab, running assays and animal experiments, and analysing the data that was coming in.
“I think, as academics, we have a duty to educate the public.”
On top of her long hours in the lab, Blakney wanted to help spread accurate info about the vaccine. “I think, as academics, we have a duty to educate not only other students and scientists but the public as well,” she says. “I think it’s largely changed now but, at the beginning of the pandemic, the lag time between what was going on with the science and the public knowing about it was really long. So I made it my mission to get the word out there.”
Blakney has been interviewed for Vogue, the Times, the BBC, and more. She has guest-starred on podcasts and hosted webinars. On top of that, her work for Team Halo on TikTok has been huge, with her videos amassing more than 2 million likes and her account reaching 211K followers.
Despite no longer being involved with COVID trials at Imperial, Blakney isn’t planning on leaving TikTok anytime soon. “I kind of have a Mary Poppins attitude about it,” she says, “I’ll do it for as long as it’s useful and interesting for people.”
Despite being brought up by two parents in the medical profession, Samantha Vanderslott Ph.D. has always been more interested in the idea of science as a “social endeavour.” She has dedicated much of her career to understanding how health and society interact, including when it comes to vaccination programmes. COVID-19, therefore, has presented the most interesting case study of her career.
“Vaccination is one of these really interesting crossovers where science directly influences society — and vice versa,” Vanderslott says. “But, during an outbreak like COVID-19, you get even more extreme circumstances because of the development of multiple vaccines very quickly.”
"I believe people deserve to be fully informed and have questions answered, so there is an obligation on the part of decision-makers and health communicators to provide that information."
Vanderslott is one of few social scientists on the Oxford Vaccine Group, the team behind the first approved vaccine to be rolled out in the U.K. Being able to watch this work up-close has put her in “quite a unique position,” she says. As a result, Vanderslott and her colleagues published a study about vaccine hesitancy in December last year and, right now, they’re working on a project that looks at people’s attitudes towards clinical trials.
This unique position has also made Vanderslott an ideal candidate for Team Halo, as she has an awareness of how society perceives science and what can be done to help change attitudes. Along with her work for Team Halo, she is also involved in a platform called The Vaccine Knowledge Project, which aims to provide in-depth, independent information about vaccines and infectious diseases.
Speaking to me about why the spread of accurate information is so important, she says, "Vaccination is our best chance of being protected against the virus and ending the pandemic. False information is making people unsure about whether to be vaccinated and — aside from causing anxiety and confusion — could also slow efforts control this crisis."
She adds: "I believe people deserve to be fully informed and have questions answered, so there is an obligation on the part of decision-makers and health communicators to provide that information."
For Faith Uwadiae, Ph.D. the invitation to join Team Halo couldn’t have come at a better time. It was around the same period, at the end of December 2020, when her friends and family were coming to her with questions about the vaccine. She could see the impact of the fake news running rampant on her social media firsthand.
Uwadiae is not involved directly with COVID-19 vaccine or development; she is an immunologist at the Francis Crick Institute studying the connection between malaria and cancer. Despite being a self-confessed TikTok novice, Uwadiae was willing to give it a go as she was passionate about stopping the spread of misinformation. “I’m a scientist, and people around me are scientists, so I think I lived in a bit of a bubble,” she says. “When we see something, we’ll check it, we’ll go and look at the original source. It’s the way we’re trained. But I’ve realised that’s not how everyone operates.”
Uwadiae’s videos (which have gained close to 20K likes in a few short weeks) are personable but to the point. She says she makes an effort to meet people “on their level,” believing this is the best way to win them over. “You plant the seeds and hopefully they go and do their own research,” she says.
“You plant the seeds and hopefully [people] go and do their own research.”
Along with sharing information about the pandemic, Uwadiae uses TikTok to offer insights about life inside an immunology lab. She is passionate about increasing diversity in academia and wants young Black people to see themselves represented in science. During her career, she struggled to find mentors and role models who looked like her, so now she uses her platform to champion Black talent and inspire the next generation of scientists.
All this feeds back into her work with Team Halo, too, as Uwadiae is aware people from BAME backgrounds are mistrustful of clinical trials and vaccines due to past injustices in health care, citing the Tuskegee trial (a U.S. study that saw 600 Black men unknowingly be given the wrong treatment for syphilis for the sake of an experiment) as an important example of this. Uwadiae knows people within these communities are far more likely to trust information if it is coming from someone who looks like them, which is why her presence in the COVID discussion is so important.
And these kinds of conversations can’t end with coronavirus, Uwadiae says. “We can make a push now to get people vaccinated and safe, but the only way to avoid this happening again in the future is to really think about the structure and system that we have in place that makes people feel hesitant in the first place,” she says. “Because there’s another pandemic — racism, discrimination, and all our inequalities in society. And if we don’t fix that, we’re going to have the exact same issues. I think it’s time for society to learn and grow from this.”