Harrowing scenes from Brazil and the long wait for a vaccine in Kyiv

Natalia Antelava


Welcome to the Infodemic. The new year started with chaos on Capitol Hill, fresh lockdowns in Britain and the United States and some positive vaccine rollout news. But disinformation continues to shape the global pandemic response and out lives along with it. Now, in 2021, we are still here to help make sense of it all.  

In this issue: tragedy in the Amazon, Boris Johnson upsets Beijing, vaccine skeptics in India and a dispatch from a vaccine enthusiast in Ukraine. 

And now to the narratives, both real and fake, that have grabbed our attention this week and deserve yours:

We are closely watching developments in Brazil. The internet is overwhelmed with reports that on Thursday an entire hospital wing full of people suffocated to death in the city of Manaus, after doctors ran out of oxygen. We don’t know the number of deaths, but medical staff have taken to social media to beg people to donate oxygen cylinders to hospitals where staff have been forced to manually ventilate patients. These posts met with fury, because the state government of Amazona knew of an impending oxygen shortage for at least a week and briefed the national health ministry on a possible humanitarian disaster back in December. Instead of sending supplies, health minister Eduardo Pazuello told doctors in Manaus to use hydroxychloroquine — a drug unproven against the coronavirus and endorsed by President Jair Bolsonaro. 

In the U.K., Prime Minister Boris Johnson has upset Beijing by linking Covid-19 to traditional Chinese medicine. The coronavirus, he said, originates “from the demented belief that if you grind up the scales of a pangolin, you will somehow become more potent.” His comments caused outrage on Chinese state media, and began trending on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter. The country’s $130-billion-a-year traditional medicine industry has little basis in science, but formed part of China’s official treatment program for Covid-19. President Xi Jinping is also a passionate devotee. So much so that in June, his party began drafting legislation to ban any criticism of these ancient practices.

Health workers in India are worried about taking the country’s domestically produced vaccine, which has been released while still in phase-three trials. Covaxin, developed by a company named Bharat Biotech, has been approved for emergency use, including on hospital workers, despite scientists’ concerns about the lack of data in trials and controversy surrounding their methodology. According to this investigation, many of the trial participants in the city of Bhopal were poor and illiterate. They also did not give informed consent. Some thought they were receiving an approved vaccine, rather than participating in a trial and possibly being given a placebo. One man died nine days after getting the shot. His widow, who is convinced the vaccine is to blame, says no one from the trial team has been in touch with the family to investigate his death. 

Vaccine hesitancy is a major obstacle to ending the pandemic. From his base in Kyiv, our special projects editor Glenn Kates explores some unexpected examples of how it takes root and spreads. Keep reading!


By Glenn Kates

I hate Covid-19. I’m ready to roll up my sleeve for just about any vaccine, no matter the origins. 

But I’m in Ukraine. President Donald Trump’s ban on vaccine exports means that Western versions like those developed by Pfizer and Moderna won’t be available here until the end of the year. And, with the ongoing conflict against Kremlin-backed separatists in Eastern Ukraine, the country isn’t likely to be importing Russia’s Sputnik V any time soon. 

So, I have been enviously reading messages from friends in the U.S. — doctors, teachers and social workers — who have already had their first shots. These same friends have been increasingly alarmed about colleagues refusing to be immunized.

One of them, Dr. James MacDonald, a gynecologist at a rural hospital in northern Minnesota, told me he was at first “flabbergasted” to hear from other healthcare workers who were passing up the vaccination. Some nurses told him they were anxious about being among the first people in the world to get the shot, while others said they were wary of the immediate side effects.

As an OBGYN, he said he was most surprised to hear concerns from both healthcare workers and patients about the vaccine’s negative effects on fertility.

Why this matters: It’s a striking example of just how fast and pervasive vaccine disinformation can be. With a few minutes of research, MacDonald found that a popular online meme claimed the technology behind the Pfizer mRNA vaccine creates an antibody that attacks a protein in the placenta and leads to infertility. Behind the meme is a theory originally pushed by a German doctor in early December. Even though it has been widely discredited, the idea continues to spread via the internet.  

The big picture: The things MacDonald has heard from colleagues have become common concerns, particularly among female healthcare workers who have chosen not to take the vaccine so far.  A Pew poll from December showed that 39% of Americans were not willing to get the shot immediately, including many healthcare workers. In a recent NPR report, a doctor at a Houston hospital said that more than 50% of the nurses on his unit were refusing to be vaccinated. 

Meanwhile, here in Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy had promised to bring millions of doses of China’s Sinovac shot by March. But concerns about its effectiveness — trial results from Brazil have shown it to be only 50.4% effective — may delay that effort. 

And, as if to highlight the problem of convincing people to take it when it eventually does arrive, Yuriy Kamelchuk, a deputy in Zelenskiy’s Servant of the People party, has taken to social media to rail against the vaccine. This week, he used Telegram to claim that fake needles were being used in images of politicians receiving the shot. 

Still, I think I’ll take my chances — if I ever get the opportunity to. 

Hungry for more?  Here are a few great reads from our reporters:

  • Isobel Cockerell on why Uyghurs in Turkey fear China is leveraging its Covid-19 vaccine to have them deported to Xinjiang

And before you go, don’t forget to sign up to Coda Currents, our new podcast!