Vaccine wars and the darknet’s pandemic recruitment boom

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. Below are the narratives, both real and fake, that have grabbed our team’s attention and deserve yours.

It’s been another tough week for the vaccine that was designed to end the pandemic. The Oxford University-developed AstraZeneca shot is cheaper and easier to transport than anything else on the market and more than 20 million people around the world have already received it. But, just as it was about to be cleared in the U.S., health officials said that the data the company has provided them with isn’t good enough. This major blow follows another: a temporary suspension of AstraZeneca in Europe over blood clot concerns earlier this month. The European Medicines Agency has since confirmed that AstraZeneca is safe, but trust has taken a hit.  A poll published by YouGov, a British polling firm, shows that the majority of people in some of the biggest European Union countries — including Germany, France, Spain and Italy — now believe it to be unsafe. 

Large numbers of people may not want the AstraZeneca vaccine, but governments do. And they are fighting about it. This week the EU threatened to block the export to the U.K. of vaccines from the company’s plant in the Netherlands. India, which produces the vaccine for much of the developing world, is now also limiting planned exports, owing to surging cases in the country. This could seriously undermine global vaccination efforts.

Covid-19 and vaccine diplomacy loom large over today’s virtual Mercosur summit. As the leaders of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay gather to commemorate the Latin American trade bloc’s 30th anniversary, pandemic politics will be hard to escape. Paraguay’s president is on thin ice after surviving an impeachment attempt over vaccine shortages and his handling of the coronavirus crisis. The country’s quest for vaccines has also been complicated by geopolitics, with Beijing offering Chinese-made vaccines if it breaks diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Brazil’s healthcare system is being pushed to the point of collapse by an explosion in Covid-19 cases. Argentina is on the eve of a second coronavirus wave, as delays stymie the country’s vaccine rollout. Meanwhile, infections are also peaking in Uruguay. Lots to look out for, and we’ll be keeping an eye on it all.

As coronavirus numbers surge across Europe, so is the number of people protesting against pandemic restrictions. This week, the continent hosted some of the biggest anti-lockdown demonstrations since the outbreak began. About 20,000 people took to the streets in the city of Kassel, central Germany. Police stood by and ignored the unmasked crowd, in a move described by a local parliament member as an “absolutely incomprehensible retreat of the state.” Police have received similar criticism in Poland, where one officer was photographed hugging one of the country’s most prominent anti-vaxxers. Switzerland also saw its largest Covid-19 denialist protest to date, when 8,000 people descended on the town of Liestal. However, they were outnumbered by the 20,000 who objected to the gathering on Twitter with the hashtag #NoLiestal

The World Health Organization says the Philippines could jeopardize its multi-million-dose deal with Covax if it doesn’t address the problem of vaccine line jumping. This week, a television actor reportedly received an AstraZeneca shot long before he was due to, causing uproar. President Rodrigo Duterte has ordered an investigation. “I understand fully the psyche of a Filipino. ‘Come here. Cut the line here.’ That’s the Filipino style,” said Duterte, adding that he wanted nine mayors to explain why they had been vaccinated ahead of healthcare workers. But it was Duterte’s closest aides that started the trend. Late last year, members of his security circle helped themselves to unregistered, allegedly smuggled, Chinese Sinopharm vaccines. 

Iran has unveiled a new Covid-19 vaccine named Fakhra, after the nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who was shot dead in November in an ambush that Iran blamed on Israel.  According to state media, Fakhrizadeh’s son was the first person to be injected. News outlets in Iran will be obliged to watch their words about the rollout, though. The Committee to Protect Journalists has called on the government to stop prosecuting reporters on trumped-up charges of spreading misinformation. On March 14, three journalists for the state-run Fars News Agency were convicted and face up to two years in prison, 74 lashes, fines, or a combination of all three.

One place that is having a great pandemic is the darknet. And it is happening in ways that we couldn’t quite anticipate. Below, Masho Lomashvili reports from the online world’s shadowiest corners. Keep reading.

JOBSEEKERS, THE DARKNET NEEDS YOU

By Masho Lomashvili

It is often said that you can find anything on the darknet, and the pandemic has pretty much proved that point. 

The internet’s black market has been quick to profit from the opportunities created by the Covid-19 crisis. As soon as the first cases were registered in Wuhan, listings for personal protective equipment flooded its channels. Then came fake cures, vaccines, counterfeit medical documents and even scamming guides for Covid-19 related products. 

But what surprised me is that the darknet has also become a destination for millions of people who have lost their jobs to the pandemic. 

Employment listings have been posted on the darknet for a while, but it now appears that more people than ever are filing applications through its encrypted chats and forums. Research by the cybersecurity company CheckPoint showed that, in addition to employers advertising for specific jobs, some individuals “are turning to the darknet and various hacking forums to offer their services and availability for any kind of work available, including less than legitimate roles.”

So, why are these jobseekers looking to the shadiest parts of the online world for their next gig? To figure this out, I got in touch with Mark Lanterman, chief technology Officer at Computer Forensic Services and a former member of the U. S. Secret Service Electronic Crimes Taskforce. 

The reason, he explained, is simple: as economies contract across the globe, criminals are hiring. And, with greater numbers of people spending more time online than ever before, opportunities for cybercrime have increased. He added that, over recent months, “criminal activity on the darknet rose significantly, given the unique vulnerabilities related to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The jobs on offer don’t come with normal benefits, like health insurance and 401ks, but the pay is high. 

I came across one listing that offered $20 a day to Russian residents willing to do a “simple unskilled marketing job.” It may not sound like much, but given where I found it and the fact that it paid more than double the country’s daily minimum wage, I did wonder what their duties would involve.  

Cybercriminals are also looking for employees at specific companies or government agencies, more than likely to create an entry point for unlawful activities. One listing I stumbled upon sought people who work for K3, a bank in Kazakhstan. The vacancy did not specify pay, but other similar ads offer around 10 times the salary of the relevant company’s regular employees. 

There are more legal-sounding jobs on offer, too. Like a listing for a driver in Ukraine that I found — with a monthly wage of $1,200. Compare that to the $200 an average Ukrainian driver makes and it starts to look much less above-board. I think I’ll stick to journalism for now.

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 Oleksandr Ignatenko, Erica Hellerstein, Makuna Berkatsashvili and Isobel Cockerell contributed to this one.  

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See you next Friday.

Natalia Antelava 

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