Disinformation

Infodemic: All eyes on Russia’s new vaccine and fake science in India

Welcome. We are tracking how global disinformation is shaping the world as it battles the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s Coda reporter Isobel Cockerell here, taking over from Natalia for the day.  

Below are some of the stories around the world that have caught our attention this week. 

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We’ve been watching closely as the world responds to President Vladimir Putin’s claims that Russia is the first country to produce a vaccine for Covid-19. 

On Tuesday, the nation announced that it had won the global race to develop an effective coronavirus vaccine. Putin said that one of his daughters has received the shot. The injection, which has been named Sputnik V, has already reportedly been administered to some of Russia’s most influential officials and businessmen.

The Ministry of Health has not yet published its trial studies and the existing numbers don’t add up. An official register from the Ministry says that 86 people were given the shot, while a health official told the Moscow Times that “several hundred” people had been involved in trials. For context, some 30,000 people are taking part in the Moderna Covid vaccine trial in the US. 

Russian doctors don’t trust the vaccine, with less than a quarter saying they would willingly be inoculated themselves. Our reporter in Moscow, Tania Torocheshnikova, spoke to Svetlana Zavidova, whose clinical research association sent an official request to the Ministry of Health asking it to delay the rollout until the vaccine has been more rigorously tested. 

“The information about this vaccine is insufficient to show that it’s safe and effective,” Zavidova said. “When you’re faced with such a serious violation, it’s very scary.”

President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines is apparently happy to be a guinea pig. “I’ll be the first one to be experimented on,” he said, full of praise for Putin. “I believe the vaccine that you have produced is really good for humanity.” Duterte’s spokesman, Harry Roque, added, “He’s old. He can sacrifice his life for the Filipino people.”

Meanwhile, Myanmar is seeking WHO approval to acquire Sputnik V. In a Facebook live video on Wednesday, the country’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, said “We still don’t know about the vaccine’s effectiveness. Once we are sure, we’ll try to get it as quickly as possible for our people.”

State media has reported that China is likely to be the next country after Russia to launch its own vaccine. Fake advertisements peddling Covid-19 shots, supposedly developed in Beijing and Wuhan, have reportedly been circulating on the social media app WeChat. The fake medicine has been advertised at 1494 yuan (around $215) for a three-dose course. 

And anti-vaxxers in Italy have run with their own – frankly bizarre – version of events. For years, they say, they have considered Putin to be a fellow anti-vaxxer. So, they’re now pushing conspiracy theories  claiming that he has created a placebo, in order to protect his citizens from other Covid-19 vaccines in development.

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INDIAN PSEUDOSCIENCE LEADER TESTS POSITIVE FOR COVID-19 by Gautama Mehta 

The head of an Indian government department, which has come under fire for promoting pseudoscientific remedies, this week tested positive for Covid-19. 

Shripad Naik leads the Ministry of AYUSH, which is tasked with promoting and regulating a collection of alternative and traditional medicinal practices from which it gets its name: Ayurveda, yoga & naturopathy, Unani, Siddha, and homoeopathy.

The body was created in 2014, shortly after Prime Minister Narendra Modi first came into office. Since then, it has received widespread criticism for its ideas, including Naik’s claim that yoga could cure cancer. 

During the pandemic, AYUSH was responsible for an advisory stating that a homeopathic tincture made from arsenic could prevent coronavirus infections, as well as herbal “immunity boosters,” which Naik was personally involved in distributing.

Aniket Sule, a researcher based at the Homi Bhabha Center for Science Education attributed the ministry’s “confused” Covid-19 response to a contradiction inherent in its mandate.

“This is a ministry which is in one way supposed to regulate all these medicinal practices, but at the same time their job is also to promote these medicinal practices,” he said.

Sule explained that the ministry’s promotion of Indian traditional medicine broadly serves Modi’s Hindu nationalist political agenda. 

“The present government’s focus is showing that Indian ancient culture had everything with them, they had all kinds of advanced knowledge,” he said.

Sumaiya Shaikh, science editor at the fact-checking website AltNews, has been publishing detailed refutations of AYUSH misinformation for months, but has, so far, not received any official response from the ministry. 

She said she recognized the value of scientific study of Ayurvedic medicine, but emphasized the need for proper trials. 

“AYUSH believes that it has been proven to be effective for centuries so sincere trials are not needed, and it’s natural so there will be no side effects or toxicity. This assumption is false and dangerous,” she said via text message.

Shaikh, whose last name is common among Indian Muslims, says that her work has placed her on the receiving end of bigotry. Questioning AYUSH is seen by her detractors as “criticizing the ancient heritage and India in general. Because of my surname, it quickly becomes hating India rather than criticism,” she said. 

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Before you go, check out this video from a factory in Belarus, where thousands of workers have walked out in protest against the disputed re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko. Protesters have reported being brutally beaten as Belarusian riot police and prison guards crack down on dissenters. In the video, someone yells, “Whoever voted for Tsikhanouskaya, stand up.” You’ll see what happens next.

Hungry for more?

  • In Egypt, Mat Nashed reports that the government’s vague new cybercrime law has put female TikTok influencers in its crosshairs
  • Covid-19 vaccine aside, how is the pandemic affecting other, equally vital immunization programs? I spoke to health advocates in Kenya to find out more about how their HPV vaccine rollout has been affected by school closures.  

As always, many thanks to all of you who are sending tips, questions and feedback. We want to hear from you, so please hit reply anytime to tell us how we can make the Infodemic more suited to your needs. 

Thanks for reading and see you on Monday. 

Isobel Cockerell 

The story you just read is a small piece of a complex and an ever-changing storyline we are following as part of our coverage. These overarching storylines — whether the disinformation campaigns that are feeding the war on truth or the new technologies strengthening the growing authoritarianism, are the crises that Coda covers relentlessly and with singular focus. We work with dozens of local and international reporters, video journalists, artists and designers to bring you stories you haven’t seen elsewhere, provide you with context missing from the news cycle and illuminate the continuity between the crises we cover. Support Coda now and join the conversation with our team. No amount is too small.

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Isobel Cockerell

Isobel Cockerell is a reporter with Coda Story. A graduate of Columbia Journalism School, she has also reported for WIRED, USA Today, Rappler, The Daily Beast, the Huffington Post and others.

Get in touch via [email protected] Follow @isocockerell