Testing the Waters: Who Would Give a COVID Vaccine Trial a Shot?

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It’s been nearly a year since COVID-19 reached the US, and it’s safe to say that Americans are growing impatient. With new vaccines on their way, a virus-free 2021 was likely on the top of everyone’s holiday wish list — especially for college students itching for a return to normal campus life for the upcoming semester.

However, while clinical trials have been promising, not everyone is eager to test the waters before the vaccine is distributed nationwide. But which college undergraduates are among the brave souls who would take a risk for the nation’s health?

To learn more, we looked at one question from the UVA Marriage Pact survey: “I would volunteer for a COVID-19 vaccine trial.” While responses varied widely from our likert scale of 1 to 7, we discovered some variation in average responses between different student cohorts.

When looking at political affiliation, willingness to participate in a vaccine trial seemed to increase as we moved left along the spectrum. Republicans came in last with a 3.37 average, while socialists took the lead with 4.01. Democrats, Socialists, and Communists all had higher average responses than Republicans, Libertarians, and Independents.

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Whether left-leaning students are more open to new experiences or simply less reluctant to trust medical institutions, liberalism is a common thread amongst those willing to roll up their sleeves for the sake of science.

Unsurprisingly, members of the LGBTQ+ community — who typically lean liberal — were more open to volunteering for a trial than those who identified as heterosexual.

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To see just how influential political differences were on students’ responses, we investigated survey answers by religion. According to Pew Research Center, Mormons are the most conservative religious group in the United States (70 percent vote red in national elections), while atheists are one of the most liberal (69 percent vote blue). Based on our findings from political affiliation, it’s understandable that Mormon and atheist students were the least and most likely to volunteer for a vaccine trial, respectively.

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However, not all students who fall into traditionally liberal demographic groups had the highest averages — indicating that something other than politics may be at play.

For example, although men have historically leaned more conservative than women, this political division didn’t seem to have a large effect on responses by gender. In fact, male-identifying survey respondents were more open to participating in a trial than women and nonbinary individuals.

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This divide could be a result not of political leaning, but of the male propensity for risk-taking. A study published by the APA discovered a stark gender difference in self-reported likelihood for risky behaviors related to gambling, recreation, and health. Whether they’re more willing to embrace danger or simply less perceptive of risks, men tend to engage in potentially harmful behaviors more often than their female or nonbinary counterparts. Recklessness or bravery? You decide.

Next, we took a look at racial identity. Based on our data from political affiliation, we might expect students belonging to racial minority groups to have higher averages. But for the most part, the opposite was true. While most groups hovered between a 3.5 and 3.8 average, we noticed a significant discrepancy between white and Black students’ responses, who fell at 3.98 and 2.72, respectively.

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This divide could be linked to medical experimentation’s racist history, which may have damaged Black Americans’ trust in medical institutions. A study by COVID Collaborative found that only 14 percent of Black Americans “mostly or completely trust” that a COVID-19 vaccine will be safe. While it would be negligent to say all Black students at UVA are skeptical of a COVID vaccine, racial disparities in the healthcare system could certainly play a factor in students’ decisions to partake in a trial.

The last metric we looked at was academic major. To see if interest in or knowledge of biological sciences affected students’ decisions to participate in a vaccine trial, we grouped together Biology, Human Biology, Biomedical Engineering, and Chemistry majors and compared them to students in all other fields. Sure enough, we found a notable difference in responses: “biological science” majors led with 4.08, while students in other fields came in second with 3.74.

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Perhaps those interested in biology or chemistry are the most eager to contribute to scientific research. Or maybe an understanding of the ins and outs of vaccination technology is reassuring, keeping them in-the-know about what’s entering their bloodstream. Either way, it’s comforting to know that many students who study bioengineering and life sciences have enough confidence in a new vaccine to try it out for themselves.

The collegiate experience over the past year has been far from ideal — whether we’re attending Zoom University from our childhood bedrooms or roaming lifeless campuses devoid of social interaction. But as researchers labor day and night for the country’s health, our job is to power through these last few months of isolation and remember that a vaccine is key. And for those who have the chance, maybe test it out yourself — if you’re feeling brave.