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The magnetic attraction of anti-vaccination theories

The Infodemic is a weekly newsletter tracking how disinformation surrounding the coronavirus crisis is reshaping our world. Also in this edition: Cuba’s Covid-19 shot and the best way to promote vaccines

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Venezuela is the first foreign country to start using Cuba’s Abdala vaccine — despite warnings from Venezuelan local health authorities and doctors that there isn’t enough publicly available data about the shot’s efficacy and safety. Cuban officials have said the vaccine is 92% effective, but its clinical data has yet to go through peer review or be shared with the World Health Organization. Venezuela has the lowest vaccination rate in South America, with less than 1% of the population having received shots imported from China and Russia.  

As infection rates spiked again across tranches of Asia this week, three Central Asian countries — Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan — took a cue from Russia and introduced mandatory vaccinations. In Kazakhstan, the move caused protests and a reported increase in demand for fake vaccination certificates. Proponents of mandatory immunization argue that Russia, where vaccination rates are now rapidly rising, shows that mandating that people get their shots works.  But data analysis, published by the radio station Ekho Moskvy, has compared Russian regions with mandatory vaccine policies to those without. It concludes that forcing individuals to be inoculated doesn’t work. A far bigger factor in vaccination uptake is whether or not the pandemic stays in the headlines. 

Remember when a nurse from Ohio tried to stick a key to her neck to show that she had been magnetized by her Covid-19 shot? A video of Joanna Overhold, trying to prove the alleged side effects in a court hearing on House Bill 248 — a motion to bring the Vaccine Choice and Anti-Discrimination Act to law in the state — went viral in June. Overhold looked frustrated and comical, trying and failing to get keys and a hairpin to stick to her skin. But, while she may have failed, the myth seems to be holding. Coda’s Alexandra Tyan finds the latest source of the lie in, of all places, Luxembourg. Keep reading.

A STICKY SITUATION

By Alexandra Tyan

A woman takes a small fridge magnet and puts it on her arm, at the spot where she has just been vaccinated. She takes her hand away, and, voila: it stays. 

She stares into the camera, incredulous. 

Tens of millions of people have watched dozens of videos on Instagram and TikTok that supposedly demonstrate that Covid-19 shots turn people into magnets. They don’t. The sticking effect is caused by the adhesive from Band-Aids used after the injection and small amounts of natural oils present on the surface of the skin. Covid vaccines are metal free, according to the CDC

And yet, the bizarre theory is spreading well beyond social media. 

Around the same time as the nurse in Ohio was trying, and failing, to prove it in the courtroom, an academic-looking study of “electromagnetism of vaccinated persons” was being prepared in the tiny country of Luxembourg, in the heart of Europe.

It is now prominently featured on the website of the European Forum for Vaccine Vigilance. Unlike amateur TikTok videos, the EFVV, the star-spangled logo of which resembles the symbols of EU institutions, looks official. The organization, its page states, is an alliance of groups and individuals, including “scientists and medical professionals” from 25 European countries and dedicated to “freedom of choice” regarding vaccinations. 

The list of members includes: a homeopath from Germany, a biologist from Madrid and Andrew Wakefield, a British former physician at the centre of the fraudulent 1998 study that claimed there was a link between vaccines and autism. Wakefield was subsequently struck off the U.K.’s medical register and is no longer allowed to practice.

The featured “study on the electromagnetism of vaccinated persons in Luxembourg” says that 29 out of 30 people who received one of the EU-approved Covid-19 vaccines in the country demonstrated magnetic properties.

It concludes that vaccinated people “give off an electromagnetic field” and describes the reaction this finding sparked among an allegedly random group of vaccinated individuals. They said that they felt as if they had been “taken as hostages” and described receiving the vaccination as a “mistake,” “madness” and the result of “blackmail.” 

The country’s medical community is small, but when I asked Paul Wilmes, a microbiologist at the Luxembourg Centre for Systems Biomedicine about EFVV’s “study”, he was shocked. It was the first time he heard about the organization and its work. 

”I have absolutely no idea how anyone could think that a vaccine per se could have any effect on magnetic properties of an individual,” he said. 

It is especially odd that this study originated in a country where almost half of the population is fully inoculated and vaccine hesitancy is not prominent. But it also shows the persistence of the magnetic theory, which has been around for more than a century.  

Juanne Pili, an Italian journalist whose work involves  covering vaccine hesitancy and debunking myths around Covid-19 for the online publication Open, believes the recent obsession of antivaxxers with electromagnetism could be inspired by the ideas of the Austrian philosopher and esotericist Rudolf Steiner, who believed that the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 to 1920 was caused by a disturbance in the electrical equilibrium of the human body.

“There is a whole strand of parapsychology concerning magnetic people, people who are convinced that they can attract objects to themselves,” he said. 

“The organisation that promoted this study also has among its members people who linked 5G to the pandemic. It’s all a recycling of old warhorses, repurposed for the present”.

Before you go

And this week’s Infodemic award goes to kids in the United Kingdom: a friend’s pre-teen daughter was sad to miss two weeks of school after her classmate tested positive for Covid-19. It turns out she didn’t need to. Her creative classmate, along with hundreds of other children in Britain had figured out how to fake a positive coronavirus test to skip school. And it couldn’t be simpler: a drop of Coke or orange juice will get you two lines that indicate a false positive on fast tests. The tip was first shared on TikTok months ago. Unsurprisingly, it took a while for adults to catch on.  

The story you just read is a small piece of a complex and an ever-changing storyline that Coda covers relentlessly and with singular focus. But we can’t do it without your help. Right now, we’re in the middle of our summer membership campaign. Show your support for journalism that stays on the story by becoming a member today. Coda Story is a 501(c)3 U.S. non-profit. Your contribution to Coda Story is tax deductible.

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