Scientists use TikTok to inform public about Covid-19 vaccine
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To combat misinformation, an international group of researchers has turned to TikTok to answer questions from the public about the Covid-19 vaccine. The scientists, members of the TeamHalo initiative, hope to convince the population to get the vaccine. Rômulo Neris is participating in the project from Brazil.
Were vaccines developed too quickly? What are they made of? How are they tested? These are the questions that Rômulo Neris, a doctoral student in virology at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, is trying to answer on TikTok. In this two-part video published on December 22, he explains that vaccines should remain effective despite the mutations of the virus.
In this two-part video, Rômulo Neris explains that virus mutations are usually minimal. But when the mutation is significant, it can confuse a vaccinated person’s immune system to believe it is dealing with a new virus. In the second part, he points out that the Covid-19 variant discovered in the UK should not affect vaccines, because "large parts of the structure of the virus were used to create the vaccine, so our immune system will still be able to recognize the parts of the virus that have not been altered by the mutation."
After starting his PhD in California, Neris returned to Brazil to work on Covid-19. In his research, he is trying to understand how our immune system reacts to the virus.
He is involved in the TeamHalo project, developed in partnership with the University of London and the United Nations "Verified" initiative to combat misinformation about Covid-19. The project brings together scientists from around the world who publish information about the virus with the hashtag #TeamHalo on TikTok, Instagram and Twitter.
‘Scientists need to occupy the space on the Internet to share their knowledge’
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Neris has frequently used social media to inform the general public about the virus:
I realized that there was a huge gap in terms of accurate information that could be understood by a non-specialist audience. So I decided to dedicate some of my time to this, for example by posting information about the virus on Twitter. That's when TeamHalo contacted me.
From its launch, the project was looking for scientists who worked on Covid-19, but who also had good communication skills.
I decided to join the initiative because I am concerned about the spread of false information, especially health misinformation as it can lead to death in the short term. In Brazil, the president says that vaccines are ineffective and even dangerous. This is a real problem. [...] I think that scientists need to occupy the space on the Internet to share their knowledge, otherwise others will use this space to say what they want.
In this video, which has more than 14,800 likes, Rômulo Neris expresses his exasperation with false information:
In this video published on November 5, Neris describes his days: "Dressing for work,” "The glove rips,” "Analyzing the results," "Denying false information about vaccines.”
A fan of Facebook and Twitter, Rômulo Neris had never used TikTok before:
I'm trying to improve! In my videos, I choose to talk about hot topics, or explain fundamental concepts of immunology. I try to convince people with facts, in the simplest possible way. It's hard to fit everything into a one-minute video.
Usually filming from his laboratory, Neris uses his daily life as a researcher to explain scientific concepts simply. For example, in one of his videos, he showed what a cell infected with Covid-19 looks like:
Translation: "These are normal cells in the laboratory [...] And these are infected cells. This is how they are. And that's what we have to work for [...] we're going to have a vaccine that is safe and effective."
With more than 18,300 subscribers, his TikTok account is a major success in Brazil. However, it does not seem to be reaching the people who are most strongly opposed to the Covid-19 vaccine:
I have a few examples of people who were initially afraid of the vaccine, and who wrote to me to say that I had changed their minds. I thought I would be followed by a lot of anti-vaxers, but in the end, I have a large subscriber base who are in favour of vaccination. They don't believe misinformation, they just want more information. On the rare occasions when people have put anti-vaccine comments under my videos, my other followers have entered into discussions with them to debunk their claims.
The issue of Covid-19 vaccines is particularly contentious in Brazil. President Jair Bolsonaro has already stated that he will not be vaccinated. The Brazilian population, on the other hand, has a high level of confidence in the vaccine: Eighty-one percent of Brazilians are willing to be vaccinated against Covid-19, according to an Ipsos poll conducted in October.
Several vaccines are currently being evaluated by Anvisa, the Brazilian regulatory agency. Those under evaluation include a vaccine developed by the Chinese company Sinovac, which has been tested widely by the Butantan Institute in Sao Paulo, Brazil since July, as well as the mRNA vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, and the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University.
Brazil is the world's second most affected country after the United States, with more than 187,000 deaths from Covid-19 since the beginning of the pandemic.