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The COVID-19 vaccine rollout in the United States has had its ups and downs. In fact, you could take this statement quite literally: For the first several months of this year, the rate of vaccinations steadily increased before peaking in April and declining since then. The decline has been marked by several complicating events that have impacted the vaccine rollout both here and across the world.

We used narrative intelligence to explore the narratives leading up to, and following, two of those events.

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1. The Johnson & Johnson COVID Vaccine Pause

On April 13, the US was boasting a seven-day average of over 3.3 million vaccine doses administered per day. If that date looks familiar, it might be because April 13 was also the day the CDC and FDA recommended a temporary pause on the administration of Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine amid reports of rare blood clots among recipients. Lo and behold, the seven-day average of vaccinations started declining the very next day, and has continued to do so almost uninterrupted since then. Numerous factors have driven this decline, and much conversation has centered on the extent to which those factors include the J&J pause – as well as the narratives it sparked.

The intention of the pause was, of course, to prevent any more cases of clots from arising while experts looked into the cause – it was standard operating procedure from a medical science perspective. But perhaps the largest, and most immediate, impact came in the form of an explosion of online narratives centered around Johnson & Johnson – and reverberating outward from there. The story caused spikes in a host of related vaccine hesitancy narratives – many of which had little to no connection with blood clots. Keywords that saw spikes in mentions on April 13 compared to the day prior included “vaccine microchips” (87% increase), “vaccines don’t work” (198% increase), and “mass vaccination” (93% increase). 

While the vaccine pause only directly pertained to Johnson & Johnson, the narratives around it also pulled in other major vaccine companies. Moderna and Pfizer both saw spikes in mentions of their brand names in conjunction with “blood clots” on April 13, with elevated mentions levels for several days after the pause was announced.

Mentions of blood clots related to Pfizer

Mentions of “blood clots” related to Pfizer, April 9 – 16, 2021, with major spikes on April 15.

Mentions of blood clots related to Moderna

Mentions of “blood clots” related to Moderna, April 9 – 16, 2021, with major spikes on April 15.

Learn more about the impact of the J&J vaccine pause in our recent Labs Report.

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2. COVID Vaccine Patent Narratives

It’s hard to say to what extent the narratives spawned by the J&J pause have contributed to the subsequent decline in vaccinations. In any case, vaccinations aren’t the only thing that have declined – US COVID cases have as well. And with cases down in the US, narratives have turned to the global vaccination campaign.

On May 5, against a backdrop of surging virus cases in India, parts of South America, and elsewhere, the Biden administration announced its support for waiving patents on COVID-19 vaccines, setting off shockwaves not just in the pharmaceutical industry but among the public as well. The announcement came after several weeks in which mentions of India in conjunction with vaccine patents surged across media. Many of these mentions amplified the narrative that patents should be waived and that pharma had a moral obligation to share their intellectual property.

Mentions of "patents" in conjunction with "India"

Mentions of “patents” in conjunction with “India” within the Vaccine conversation, November 2020 – May 2021.

While the response to the administration’s announcement was mixed, much of the subsequent online conversation pushed narratives that were critical of the pharmaceutical industry. In May, even Moderna, which had previously signaled that they would not enforce the patent on their COVID-19 vaccine, saw a dip in sentiment along with Pfizer and AstraZeneca.

Sentiment score for major vaccine makers, Feb. 2020 - May 2021

Sentiment score for major vaccine makers, Feb. 2020 – May 2021

Sentiment score for major vaccine makers, May 1, 2021 to date.

Sentiment score for major vaccine makers, May 1, 2021 to date.

Read our report for more insights on vaccine patent narratives.

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Key Takeaways

Here are a couple of the lessons that emerge from our narrative intelligence around vaccines:

1. A narrative about one company can pull in others

That the J&J vaccine pause immediately led to a spike in mentions of blood clots related to several other vaccine makers is a reminder of the speed with which narratives can spread. True, comprehensive narrative intelligence means not just monitoring for mentions of your own brand, but for mentions of other brands and issues in your space.

2. Tracking established narratives can prepare you for spikes

Narratives combining mentions of vaccine patents and India had been circulating for months before the administration’s announcement of support for patent waivers. Companies using narrative intelligence to track this narrative would have seen it start to spike in April – even before it spilled from the internet to the real world in the form of the announcement and its related impact.