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Decoding online searches and tweets on covid vaccine

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Come 16 January, India will join about 50 countries to offer a vaccine against the coronavirus. The ‘decisive turning point’, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi called it, was indeed much awaited after a disastrous pandemic. But Google search records show Indians have been among the least curious about coronavirus vaccines compared to major countries where a vaccine has been launched. Top domestic vaccine contenders entered the consciousness of Indian Google users quite late, the data show.

For the two vaccine manufacturers that India is banking on, search interest on Google has spiked twice since October. But neither instance came due to scientific achievements. Serum Institute of India and Bharat Biotech generated interest when Modi visited their facilities on 28 November. Bharat Biotech got a spike again earlier this month after an unseemly spat with Serum Institute and questions around the efficacy of its own vaccine.

These are observations from a dive into the online activity related to the covid vaccine in India, as measured by data from Google Trends and Twitter. The arc of the virus is moving from disease to protection. This is showing up in online activity and conversations—an illustrative case of our times, where the news cycle and online activity feed each other to shape narratives.

Since October, the generic topic ‘covid-19 vaccine’ has generated far more online search interest among Indian users than any specific vaccine candidate, shows Google Trends data. And when Indian users did search for specific vaccine options, global pharmaceutical giant Pfizer led the way by far. Data for the topic ‘covid-19 vaccine’ includes searches for multiple related keywords and search strings.

Pfizer’s vaccine, developed with German firm BioNTech, was the first to get approval in the UK last month. The vaccine has not found its way into India yet, given its more demanding cold-storage requirements and higher cost. Instead, India has approved vaccines from Bharat Biotech, and Serum Institute, whose jab was developed by AstraZeneca in collaboration with researchers at Oxford University.

India’s approvals finally led to some online interest in domestic vaccines. Part of the reason was that in the first week of January, Serum Institute CEO Adar Poonawalla implicitly dismissed the Bharat Biotech vaccine by terming all vaccines in the world barring three—from Pfizer, Moderna and Oxford-AstraZeneca—being “safe like water”. Bharat Biotech chairman and managing director Krishna Ella responded by trashing the Oxford-AstraZeneca trials.

A day later, the two companies issued a joint statement, declaring mutual respect for each other’s vaccines. But by then, the episode had impacted the vaccine conversation online. The spat brought to fore many issues around the science and ethics of the vaccines being developed by the two companies. It increased conversations and inquiries around them. Were the vaccines effective and safe? Had they been put through ample trials?

This showed up in search trends of Indian users related to the covid-19 vaccine. Their prime interest was still searching for a ‘covid vaccine’. But they also began searching for answers to critical questions related to the science of vaccines. In January, search terms such as ‘vaccine trial’, ‘vaccine side effects’ and ‘vaccine efficacy’ have all seen a sharp increase in search interest. Volumes for ‘vaccine efficacy’ and ‘vaccine side effects’ were the highest since the beginning of the pandemic.

But that’s the public side. What about other stakeholders? The government, corporations, and the scientist community showed a tendency to further their interests in their online messaging related to vaccines. For this analysis, we collated tweets of 12 key individuals—four each from the three professions, including Health Minister Harsh Vardhan, Serum Institute’s Poonawala, and World Health Organization chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan. We filtered tweets that mentioned vaccines, and looked at what they were talking about.

The point of focus depended on the profession. For government functionaries, the most-used words reflected big-picture optimism: ‘development’, followed by ‘PM’ (reference to the prime minister). For companies, beyond the use of the word ‘trials’, the message was again of hope and progress. For the scientific community, however, the focus were critical issues of science and ethics of the vaccine.

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Despite all the chatter about vaccines, the online search interest for them in India pales in comparison with the search volumes in countries where inoculation is under way. Google Trends data shows search traffic in the past 30 days in India is about one-fourth of that in the US and one-third of that in Canada. As the vaccine in India approaches its launch, that could well change in the coming weeks.

www.howindialives.com is a database and search engine for public data

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