Iran’s deadly fourth wave, Brazil’s Sputnik V spat and anti-vaxxers find a new myth

Welcome to the Infodemic and, if you just joined us, thank you for signing up! We are tracking how disinformation surrounding the coronavirus crisis is reshaping our world. Here are the narratives, both real and fake, that have grabbed our team’s attention this week and deserve yours.

The horrific situation in India is dominating global headlines, but Iran is also in the grip of its deadliest wave yet — the country’s fourth, if you’re counting. Daily deaths have been spiking since Persian new year celebrations in March. Conversations on Clubhouse, Twitter and Instagram have speculated that individuals in power have made sure that they have been vaccinated ahead of the wider population, and reports of queue-jumping officials have abounded. Rumors are fueled by the fact that on state media channels, record death numbers are not even top-line news. The nation has struggled to import vaccines as a result of US sanctions. This week, the government announced it is launching phase-three trials for Soberana, its own vaccine, which is  jointly produced with Cuba.

Tensions are escalating between Brazil and Russia over the Sputnik V shot. The dispute started earlier this week, after Brazil’s health regulator rejected requests by several states to import some 30 million doses, citing safety concerns, even as the country battles a devastating coronavirus surge. The vaccine’s developers quickly fired back on Twitter, stating that the Brazilian regulator’s decision was politically motivated. Yesterday, they cranked up the pressure by threatening to sue the Brazilian agency for defamation. Brazil, in response, said the decision to deny importation of Sputnik V came from evidence that the vaccine carried a live version of a common-cold-causing virus, raising “questions about the integrity of the manufacturing processes.” 

Still, Sputnik V has had a pretty good week. Its Russian manufacturer has signed agreements with Turkey for the sale of 50 million doses and for the local pharmaceutical firm Viscoran to produce the vaccine. Deals have also been struck with Mexico, China, Bangladesh and India. While Mexico will only handle the final filling and packaging of the vaccine, companies in China and India will produce it from scratch. 

India’s decision to halt exports of the AstraZeneca vaccine is a huge blow to the World Health Organization’s Covax program and a big opportunity for other national manufacturers. We saw many of them jump on it this week: 

  • Egypt announced that it plans to supply Africa with locally produced Sputnik V and China’s Sinopharm vaccines. The continent is especially reliant on the WHO and seriously affected by the halt of AstraZeneca exports. 
  • South Africa announced it is resuming production of the Johnson & Johnson shot, with plans to manufacture 30 million doses. 
  • In Asia, Bangladesh, which is already working on its own Bongavax vaccine, 

is now also planning to produce Sputnik V and Sinopharm shots. 

  • In Europe, France has taken matters into its own hands, announcing that Sanofi, a pharmaceutical company headquartered in Paris, will make 200 million doses of the Moderna vaccine. 
  • According to Sputnik (the news agency, not the vaccine) Bolivia also plans to join Argentina in co-production of Sputnik (the vaccine, not the news agency).

A VICIOUS CYCLE OF ANTI-VAXX MISINFORMATION by Katia Patin

The anti-vaxx movement has found a new talking point to ramp up Covid-19 vaccine hesitancy: periods. 

Social media accounts are claiming that vaccinated women “shed” mRNA and can influence unvaccinated women’s periods or even cause miscarriages just by being near them. Sounds bizarre, but the myth has been snowballing since late last year, when women began reporting disruptions to their menstrual cycle after a Covid-19 shot.

In Kenya, women are asking why they weren’t told about these supposed potential side effects. Meanwhile, in Russia, state-owned media outlets have run shocking headlines — like “Pain and Blood” — about the alleged impact on menstrual cycles of Western-made vaccines. However, these anecdotal accounts have yet to be studied closely by researchers.

Disinformation superspreaders have latched on to the reports and distorted them to proclaim that Covid-19 vaccines not only impact women’s fertility, but can affect the cycles of others by proxy. (This, in turn, taps into another powerful myth of cycle syncing.)

The paranoia is being whipped up online by prominent anti-science figures, such as the QAnon espousing anti-mask activist and gynecologist Dr. Christiane Northrup. In live video streams that have racked up tens of thousands of views before being taken down by Instagram, she spread the vaccine shedding theory to her 175,000 followers, then went even further. “Here’s what you want to say to ANY man you’re involved with who wants the jab: ‘I will never have sex with you again,’” she said.

In Florida, the principal of a private school has already told teachers not to vaccinate after three women at the school said that their periods had been “impacted after having spent time with a vaccinated person.” A further notice from the head of Centner Academy in Miami effectively told staff that their employment was contingent on not getting a Covid-19 shot.

“It’s drawing on this primal fear of infertility and this false previous belief that other vaccines are associated with infertility,” says Dr. Jen Gunter, a San Francisco based OB/GYN and the author of a book titled “The Vagina Bible.” Gunter has been taking on Northrup and other spreaders of the myth on her Twitter and Instagram account, joining a number of doctors working to counteract the firehose of coronavirus misinformation being aimed at women.

The onslaught of coronavirus-related junk science about periods, pregnancy, breast-feeding and vaccinating children only adds to “women bearing the brunt of the financial fallout from the pandemic,” explained Gunter. “It’s very easy for people to just get sucked into these myths and this misinformation when you’re at the end of your rope.”

WHAT WE ARE READING?

  • This piece from the BBC on some pretty wild fake Covid cures circulating in Latin America — especially in Brazil, where many of them are linked to President Jair Bolsonaro and his sons.
  • This terrifying story in the MIT Technology Review, which warns us that Covid may lead to a lifetime of autoimmune disease
  • And last, but not least, this bizarre account of an Angelina Jolie lookalike receiving a fake shot and collapsing in front of guests on live Tunisian TV. 

Many thanks to Coda’s Isobel Cockerell, Masho Lomashvili, Mariia Pankova and Erica Hellerstein for contributing to this week’s Infodemic. 

There is a lot more from our team on codastory.com 

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See you next Friday.

Natalia Antelava

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. But we can’t do it without your help. Support journalism that stays on the story. Coda Story is a 501(c)3 U.S non-profit. Your contribution to Coda Story is tax deductible.

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