Effects of Pope Francis Religious Authority and Media Coverage on Twitter Users Attitudes toward COVID-19 Vaccination

1. Introduction

This paper is embedded in a research trend related to the influence of religion and the role of religious leaders with regard to public health concerns [1,2,3]. It is also part of current research on the influence of religion on decisions about accepting or rejecting vaccinations (against various diseases; the problem had existed before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic). Nonetheless, very few studies have focused on the Catholic religion, nor have they addressed papal comments on vaccination. The main method used in this study is the analysis of the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching on vaccination and on the types and significance of the pope’s statements on various topics. The auxiliary methods are sentiment analysis and network analysis made in the open source software Gephi. In this case, the specific object of study is the emotions (sentiment) evoked among Twitter users by the remark of Pope Francis about the moral necessity of vaccination against COVID-19.

The data from Twitter cover the period from 6 January 2021 to 21 February 2021 (after Pope Francis expressed his opinion on the vaccine and in the time around this event).

Limitations: One of the obligatory settings was the selection of tweets without a specified language (I)—the number of tweets in Polish was negligible and could not provide a basis for the analysis. The advantage (II) of this approach was the use of the tidytext library, which offers the possibility to use sentiment dictionaries—a prepared database of words with an assessment of their sentiment in English; there was a need for detailed text processing, as the text contained undesirable characters (the details are described in the subchapter Data preparation), any other words in other languages entered along with the search terms could not be measured in terms of the sentiment level (III) The rtweet library and the obtained API-developer configurations were used to collect data from Twitter.

In detecting communities by tracing the discussion, a notable limitation is the scope of the search filter. Tweets under discussion are captured after a word search is made on the Twitter API application, for example, “pope + vaccine”. However, various alternative versions of the string with # were applied, for example, “#pope + vaccine “, “#popevaccine”, etc.

Human coronaviruses were first discovered in the 1960s [4]. They caused epidemics in East Asia and the Middle East. In 2002, cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS-CoV) were reported, as well as a respiratory syndrome (MERS-CoV) in the Middle East in 2012 [5]. They were identified as more infectious and causing life-threatening diseases among infants, the elderly and those who are immunocompromised [6], as compared to other types of coronaviruses that trigger the symptoms of the ‘common cold’ [7].

The new coronavirus of severe acute respiratory syndrome 2 (SARS-CoV-2) was originally identified on 12 December 2020 in Wuhan city, Hubei province, China, where an outbreak of the epidemic was reported. The current pandemic caused by SARS-CoV-2 is the third consecutive human CoV outbreak in the last two decades [8]. The COVID-19 virus disease poses a global public health threat of the 21st century [9,10], which has far surpassed SARS and MERS in numbers and territorial coverage [11], spreading rapidly worldwide [10,12,13]. SARS-CoV-2 has a lower mortality risk compared to SARS-CoV, but according to epidemiological data, it is more easily and rapidly transmitted, and due to the long incubation period of the virus, as well as the asymptomatic course of the COVID-19 disease, it is unexpectedly difficult to identify and eliminate the virus [14]. The SARS-CoV-2 virus predominantly infects the respiratory tract, causing symptoms ranging from mild to severe acute respiratory syndromes combined with organ failure in some patients, and in certain cases leading to death [15]. The most common symptoms of the infection are fever, cough, shortness of breath, and overall fatigue. In severe cases, systemic infections and pneumonia also coexist [11].

From 4 March 2020 to 22 October 2021, there were 2,961,923 infections and 76,359 deaths [16]. A total of 242,822,630 infections and 4,935,086 deaths were reported worldwide. The highest number of infections (45,352,376) and deaths (734,550) were reported in the USA. In Europe, Russia ranks highest with 8,041,581 infections and 224,369 deaths due to COVID-19. Poland ranks 35th in the world according to the COVID-19 Dashboard by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University [17]. All the above data are from 22 October 2021.

At the start of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic in 2020, there were no clinically approved vaccines, so the only protection against infection, according to WHO recommendations, were personal preventive behaviors of social distancing, wearing protective masks and disinfection, along with public health interventions including testing for SARS-CoV-2, monitoring infections and deaths, and implementing countermeasures, such as restrictions on social meetings [11]. At present, vaccines against SARS-CoV-2 are available and in widespread use. There is a decrease in the number of cases as the vaccination rate is increasing. As of 22 October 2021, there were 6,760,365,712 vaccinations registered worldwide, including 38,510,829 in Poland, of which 1,409,652 were vaccinated in the last 28 days [17].

Vaccines differ primarily in their mechanism of action. The process of developing vaccines is long and multi-staged. In the fight against COVID-19, two research phases of the vaccines were accelerated: the preclinical and the clinical ones. WHO data show that as of early January 2021, 63 vaccines were in clinical trials and 172 in preclinical studies [18]. The first vaccine approved in the EU countries (21 December 2020) was produced by Pfizer/BioNTech (Comirnaty) [19]. It consists of single-stranded mRNA, coated with lipid nanoparticles, which encodes the full length S protein of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The expression of mRNA in host cells is transient. Two nucleoside point mutations are introduced into the mRNA to encode proline, which causes the emerging S protein to adopt a pre-fusion conformation [20]. The product is suitable for patients over 16 years of age. It requires two doses with at least 21 days’ gap between them. The efficacy after both doses is 95%. The storage temperature for this vaccine is from −90 °C to −60 °C [19,21].

The next vaccine approved for use was a product by Moderna (6 January 2021) [22]. This vaccine, similarly, to the Pfizer preparation, is an example of a genetic vaccine. It is administered to adults (over 18 years of age) in two doses at least 28 days apart. It has an efficacy of 94.1% [23]. It can be stored for 7 months at −25 °C to −15 °C [21].

By decision of the European Commission of 21 January 2021, the next vaccine to be launched on the market was a product by Astra Zeneca called Vaxzevria [24]. This vaccine contains a recombinant, non-replicating chimpanzee adenovirus (ChAdOx1) encoding the SARS-CoV-2 virus S protein. This particle serves as a vector that carries the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein, resulting in immune system response [25]. The vaccine is recommended for people aged 18 years and older and is applied in two doses, 28 to 84 days apart. Its efficacy is 59.5% and the storage temperatures are 2-8 °C [26].

The vaccine of the Janssen Pharmaceutica company was authorized with a Conditional Marketing Authorisation in the European Union on 11 March 2021 [27]. It is also based on vectors—active viruses that reduce the risk of infection. The vaccine mobilizes the immune system to produce antibodies. Unlike those described above, it requires a single dose [28]. The Gam-COVID-Vac (Sputnik V) vaccine, developed at the Gamaleya National Research Centre for Epidemiology and Microbiology, was registered in Russia on 25 August 2020. Similar to the preparations from Astra Zeneca and Janssen Pharmaceutica, the Russian vaccine is based on adenoviruses, which are vectors. This vaccine has a 91.6% efficacy [24,28,29]. According to the EU Certificate of Vaccination, it is possible to use mixed schedules with the vaccines Vaxzevria (AstraZeneca), Comirnaty (Pfizer BioNTech), Spikevax (Moderna). The decision is made by the doctor qualifying for vaccination, taking into account the best interests of the patient [30].

The data as of 22 October 2021 suggest that the European Medicines Agency is conducting a phase review procedure for four vaccines: the recombinant protein vaccine (NVX-CoV2373), the vector vaccine Sputnik V (Gam-COVID-Vac), the inactivated vaccine with adjuvant Sinovac, and the protein vaccine with adjuvant Vidprevtyn (Sanofi Pasteur, Lyone, France) [31]. Currently, all people over the age of 18 can receive another dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine 6 months after completing the basic vaccination schedule [32].

COVID-19 vaccines are being developed rapidly compared to traditional vaccines and are approved worldwide through the Emergency Use Authorisation (EUA). The distribution of effective and, above all, safe vaccines is a priority for all countries in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic [33].

Pope Francis’ position on COVID-19 vaccination has been unequivocal since a number of questions have been raised about the development, testing, and administration of the vaccines.

At the beginning of January 2021, Pope Francis expressed the view that vaccination was a moral obligation because one’s own health and life as well as the lives of others were at stake, and that rejecting vaccination was “suicidal denialism”. The Vatican announced at the time that it would be launching a vaccination campaign among its employees and their families in the middle of the month—a total of more than 10,000 people were estimated to join [34]. Pope Francis himself was vaccinated as soon as the vaccination campaign began [35]. In August 2021, he repeated the appeal to receive vaccines against the SARS-CoV-2 virus, calling vaccination an “act of love” [36]. The seriousness with which the issue of vaccination was taken can be illustrated by the fact that in February 2021 a decree was issued requiring Vatican employees who refused to receive the vaccine to present a medical document explaining the refusal, otherwise facing various consequences, including termination of employment. After criticism and outrage, the Vatican abandoned this rigorous provision, saying that “alternative solutions” would be prepared for those who did not wish to be vaccinated and that “freedom of individual choice” would be respected; nevertheless, the whole situation clearly showed a deep understanding and strong support for the vaccination campaign [37]. It is worth mentioning (although this is an event beyond the timeframe of the study) that on 18 September 2021, a decree signed by Cardinal Giuseppe Bertello, the President of Pontifical Commission for Vatican City State, was published. Under its terms, as of October 1, entry to the Vatican would be permitted only to persons who hold a Vatican COVID passport (“Green Pass”), an EU COVID certificate, or another foreign document certifying vaccination against COVID-19 or having had the SARS-CoV-2 disease. A negative test result for SARS-CoV-2 would also authorize entry to the Vatican. The action was based on the personal wish of Pope Francis, expressed during an audience on 7 September [38,39,40].

For a better understanding of the context of the events analyzed, it would also be useful to refer to the following issues:

An extensive introduction of the above can be found in Appendix A. The same item numbering in the Bibliography has been used for both files.

This paper is interdisciplinary and combines the research perspective of medical studies with that of media and social communication studies and theological studies. This is due to the subject and scope of the research, the research questions formulated and the objectives of the paper. The main goal of this article is to determine [from arguments on all sides of the issue] whether, and to what extent, statements issued by a religious authority can be used as an argument in the COVID-19 vaccination campaign. The main aim of the paper was to measure emotions, words used, and phrases related to the event using textual data analysis techniques.

The authors also want to find answers to the questions of how the pope’s comments affect public opinion when they concern the sphere of secular and everyday life, including issues related to health care. This implies further questions: As far as the pope is concerned, are his statements on this issue binding for the faithful, and to what extent? Are such statements covered by the dogma of papal infallibility, as understood in the theological sciences, and to what extent? What emotions are aroused in the public space by such statements? What factors weaken or strengthen this message? The answers to these questions will contribute to a better understanding of the mechanisms of social reactions related to the threat to public health.

No hypothesis has been formulated as the research is of an exploratory nature.

Related Posts