AstraZeneca’s PR crisis, Putin’s maskless Moscow rally and pseudoscience in Iran

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ASTRAZENECA’S IMAGE PROBLEM

“I am not an anti-vaxxer, but there is no way I am getting the AstraZeneca shot,” a friend told me this week. We were on a socially distanced walk in the hills above Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, which has just received its first shipment of the Oxford University-developed vaccine.  

The long-awaited first batch is small, even for Georgia’s tiny 3.7 million population: 43,200 shots is barely enough to inoculate the country’s medical workers. But, never mind. It looks like most of them don’t want the shot anyway. 

So far, only about 3,500 have been used. The reason? Like my friend, many don’t trust the AstraZeneca vaccine being distributed here via Covax, the UN’s global vaccination program. 

It’s not just Georgia. Despite science that proves otherwise, the narrative that the AstraZeneca shot is dangerous is spreading across the globe. And that’s a problem for everyone. 

The so-called Oxford vaccine is cheaper and easier to transport than most, which makes it vital to securing the global immunity we all need to end the pandemic. 

And yet, from Venezuela to Ukraine, Georgia to Cape Verde, dozens of countries are either suspending vaccinations with AstraZeneca or struggling to convince their populations to receive it. The roots of this skepticism are easy to trace:

  • Throughout the testing period, the AstraZeneca team made a decision not to test large numbers of people over the age of 65, until the vaccine had proved safe for younger individuals. That paved the way for a myth that it is not effective for older people.
  • When President Emmanuel Macron stated that it was “quasi-ineffective” for over-65s, French regulators ordered more studies, cementing growing doubts. Other European countries followed, with Switzerland banning it outright. Then there is the blood clot issue. Seventeen million people safely received the vaccine in the EU and U.K., but a minuscule number of them developed blood clots, prompting European countries to temporarily suspend use earlier this month. 

European regulators have since confirmed that AstraZeneca is safe, but will this be enough to stop fears snowballing? 

Possibly not. Much of the AstraZeneca vaccine distributed through Covax is manufactured in India, and the prevailing narratives in some countries are fueled by racism. 

Take Ukraine, where vaccine skeptic social media has hosted images of darker skin as a “side effect.” Many medical workers — the only people eligible for the injection — are voicing fears that the Indian version of AstraZeneca is  “inferior” to its European equivalent (It’s not. The EU has checked.) The result? According to government figures, last weekend not a single person was vaccinated in Ukraine’s capital Kyiv.

And here in Georgia, vaccine skepticism has taken on a new dimension. On Thursday, a 27-year old-nurse named Megi Bakradze went on television to encourage her colleagues to get the shot. “There is nothing dangerous. We should all get vaccinated,” she said before rolling up her sleeve. An hour later, she went into anaphylactic shock and collapsed. This morning, she was pronounced dead.  

Officials in Georgia and the EU insist that such deaths do not mean that AstraZeneca is something to fear. The numbers back them. But for hundreds of thousands here, and millions more around the world, these individual tragedies are sure to prove more powerful than data. 

It’s not just AstraZeneca. Russia’s Sputnik V is also experiencing image problems. Even though the vaccine is being used around the world and freely available in all big cities across Russia, only 3.5 % of the country has been vaccinated. Some Russians are even buying fake vaccination passports instead of getting the shot.

Low take-up rates didn’t stop Vladimir Putin from flouting his own government’s restrictions and bringing thousands of — mostly unmasked — people to a stadium in the center of Moscow to celebrate the seventh anniversary of the annexation of Crimea. In February, police used lockdown violations as an excuse to arrest thousands of people who came out in support of the jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny.

Also caught breaking his own government’s rules was Mexico’s pandemic spokesman Hugo López-Gatell, who went for a casual stroll in Mexico City while infected with Covid-19. It’s the latest in a series of pandemic-related scandals involving the country’s embattled coronavirus czar. In January during Mexico’s Covid-19 surge, López-Gatell was photographed maskless at an ocean-front restaurant in Oaxaca, ignoring his own social distancing guidelines and public proclamations about the importance of staying at home. Now, he’s going out for walks while contagious. López-Gatell told reporters he was “totally recuperated,” but dodged questions about his health status. “There is no medical contradiction in walking,” he said. “My contagious capacity is minimal.”

Vaccine doubts in Iran are of a different kind, which can only be understood in the context of the country’s media ecosystem. Isobel Cockerell explains below, so keep reading. 

DIVINE INFORMATION IN IRAN 

By Isobel Cockerell

In pandemic-stricken Iran, facts are not always easy to come by. Many Iranians don’t trust state TV outlets, which in recent months have featured Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei banning western vaccines and branding them “untrustworthy.”

One alternative to state news is BBC Persian, an information lifeline for many in Iran. But the channel isn’t always reliable, and certainly isn’t universally trusted. Last month, it featured Noraladin Pirmoazzen, a surgeon and former lawmaker, who attacked both Sputnik V and the Pfizer vaccine on air, stating that he didn’t trust any Covid vaccine developed over the past year. 

Polarization and lack of trust in media makes people gravitate towards Telegram and WhatsApp groups, says Farhad Souzanchi, the founder of Fact Nameh, a Farsi-language organization that debunks Iranian disinformation. 

But he told me that what gives conspiracy theories and rumors special potency is the fact that the Iranian government veers between two poles: The desire for Iran to be a scientific pioneer and the temptation to promote easy answers to the unending chaos of the pandemic. 

An example of the latter was the absurd moment last year when Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps unveiled a “state-of-the-art” Covid-19 detector, claiming it had been developed by scientists to scan for the virus. Needless to say, it was totally fraudulent and Iranian physicists rallied against it, describing it as “science fiction.” 

Souzanchi believes the government’s support for pseudoscientific narratives is driven by antipathy towards the West. “They’re more anti-West than anti-science,” he said. One seems to lead to the other, though: In recent years, the government has ramped up support for traditional Islamic medicine. “Now there are institutes and university programs on Islamic medicine — everything is based on religious texts and stories.” 

This is more than disinformation, said Souzanchi. Iran is in search of “divine information.”

That’s it from us for today. Well, almost. As ever it takes a village — in our case a team — to put together this newsletter. Coda’s Erica Hellerstein, Makuna Berkatsashvili, Mariam Kiparoidze, Mariia Pankova and Oleksandr Ignatenko contributed to this one.  

And special thanks to our friends at Mexico’s Animal Politico for their story tip, and their journalism! 

Got questions? Suggestions? Story tips?  Hit reply any time. We love hearing from you. And please do consider joining our membership program and coming along to Coda’s first Coda Live event next week. I am told it will be fun!

See you next Friday.

Natalia Antelava 

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