How Star Trek may be contributing to COVID-19 vaccine skepticism

The Star Trek series seems, well, galaxies away, from our struggles with COVID-19. Until it isn’t. Consider the following.

The Star Trek series was singular in multiple ways, not the least its contribution to our cultural lexicon: “Go where no man [later: “no one”] has gone before”, here; “Beam me up, Scotty” (although the precise phrase was never actually uttered, here); and “warp speed”.

This Kat is partial to “beam me up, Scotty”, probably since he once encountered at O’Hare Airport the actor James Doohan, who played Montgomery "Scotty" Scott in the series. [I sheepishly approached Doohan, who said, “Let me guess what you want to say-- beam me up, Scotty”. “Right”, I replied. Alas, it did not work: I remained within the confines of the airport while Doohan went on his way.

As for the phrases themselves, the first of the three was aspirational, while the second played to our fantasy of the scientifically impossible. The phrase “warp speed”, and the notion of “super-fast” that it connotes (“Warp speed. Mr. Sulu, take us home."), is different, because there may be some science and not just fiction behind the phrase. As noted--
[a] warp drive is a fictional superluminal spacecraft propulsion system in many science fiction works, most notably Star Trek, and a subject of ongoing physics research. A spacecraft equipped with a warp drive may travel at speeds greater than that of light by many orders of magnitude.
Still, as recently argued, here (“It’s theoretically possible to travel faster than light using the warp drives seen in ‘Star Trek’ “), there remains something in the phrase that connects with the world of scientific possibility. Exhibit A: COVID-19, which brought together the messaging of Star Trek with the challenges of promoting mass vaccinations, all under the project name, “Operation Warp Speed”.

The Operation Warp Speed project was a public-private partnership, officially announced in May 15, 2020 and tasked by the U.S. Department of Defense to “accelerate the testing, supply, development, and distribution of safe and effective vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics to counter COVID-19 by January 2021.”

Many will likely remember the wide-spread doubt about the announcement; no vaccine of this scale had ever been developed in such a short period of time. Subsequent facts on the ground largely put paid to those doubts, whereby already in late 2020 the first roll-out of the vaccine began.

Against that background, the choice of the name, “Operation Warp Speed”, seemed inspired. Relying on the optimism conveyed by the phrase, it signaled that science could, against all seeming odds, be brought to bear to achieve fantastic results for the world-wide public weal in a compressed period of time. What better messaging than that, especially when the vaccinations were developed in record time—warp speed indeed.

But it now turns out that, at least in seeking to address the concerns of some of the anti-vaxxer population, calling the project Operation Warp Speed may have had unintended, but palpable, negative consequences. This was brought home in a recent New York Times podcast as part of the series, “The Daily” (yes, “daily”, at least on all week days).

The topic of one specific episode addressed skepticism about the COVID-19 vaccination, focusing on a rural area in the State of Tennessee, and the challenge that such hesitancy posed for achieving herd immunity. In this context, the population of interest is not anti-vaxxers by ideology. For them, COVID-19 is simply the latest instance of the decision not to be vaccinated. From the point of view of messaging, this group is unaffected by whatever messaging about the benefits of the vaccination is presented.

Of greater interest are those who are not ideologically opposed to vaccination but are declining to receive a vaccination for COVID-19. One of the most salient reasons given for their reticence to be vaccinated are their doubts about the safely of the vaccination, whatever claims to the contrary are being made.

And one of the main factors underpinning their concern was the speed by which the vaccine had been developed. These were people had a degree of awareness of the history of vaccine development, measured in multiple years, sometimes even decades. There is simply no way, in their view, that a safe vaccination could have been developed so quickly.

And, yes, one of the significant factors impacting on this reluctance, based on the purported speed of development of the vaccine, may be the name "Operation Warp Speed”. For those who are already skeptical about how a safe vaccine could have been produced so quickly, “warp speed” reinforced their hesitation to be vaccinated, making herd immunity even less likely.

For sure, the selection of the project name, “Operation Warp Speed”, was not intentionally made to dissuade persons from getting vaccinated. Still, one wonders to what extent, from the vantage of public health messaging, in general, and vaccine development messaging, in particular, full thought was given to possible undesirable outcomes.

Perhaps the almost mystical regard that we hold for Star Trek and its iconic phrases blinded those responsible from seeing the broader possible negative connotations for a project name focused almost entirely on speed, no matter how wonderful and even magical it seemed.

By Neil Wilkof

Picture on right is by Trekky0623, who has donated it to the public domain.

Picture on left is by kcida10, who has donated it to the public domain.

How Star Trek may be contributing to COVID-19 vaccine skepticism How Star Trek may be contributing to COVID-19 vaccine skepticism Reviewed by Neil Wilkof on Wednesday, June 09, 2021 Rating: 5


  1. I was surprised and disappointed to read this post on IPKat as I'm struggling to see how it has anything at all to do with IP.

    In a world where the mainstream media feeds the population a constant stream of one-sided, pro-vaccine mania it was comforting to have the constancy of solely IP-related topics provided by IPKat posts.

    Most of us have science backgrounds, or at least have enquiring minds or critical thinking skills, and do not need to be spoon-fed these "public health messages", particularly in our professional sphere.

    And please stop bandying around the perjorative term "anti-vaxxer". Yes, there are people ideologically opposed to vaccinations, usually because they are related to a person who has had a serious adverse reaction from a vaccine in the past (i.e., they were previously “pro-vaccine”), so have seen at first hand the potential for damage in some individuals (and not the “one-in-a-million marketing hype spun by the pharmaceutical companies). No doubt there are people out there who, for example, have an idealogical opposition to fizzy drinks, but we don't call them anti-HFCSers and treat them with such disdain.

    Please stick to your knitting and leave the pro-vaccine propaganda to the government – they’re way better at it and easier to ignore at work!

    Fed-up pleb

    1. I'm with you about the post being unrelated to IP, but the rest of your comment, like the post itself, doesn't belong on this blog.


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