Hackers game India’s vaccine system, immunization privileges in the Gulf and Argentina’s chlorine dioxide evangelists

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

Supporters of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi are countering criticism of his government’s Covid-19 response in the international media by using dubious websites, confusingly titled the Daily Guardian and Australia Today, to get their side of the story across. This week, a host of ministers and BJP members tweeted an article lauding Modi’s coronavirus policies, with the subtle headline “PM Modi Has Been Working Hard; Don’t Get Trapped in the Opposition’s Barbs.” Authored by a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s national media team, the op-ed suggests that India’s devastating wave of infections might be a conspiracy, deployed to damage the prime minister’s image. 

According to the latest figures, released on Friday, India’s total number of Covid-19 cases has topped 24 million, while daily deaths have reached 4,000. But, if you want a vaccination appointment, you’d better have some serious coding skills. Our friends at Rest of World tell this astonishing story about developers using bots to hack the government’s overloaded vaccination portal and book precious slots.

Meanwhile, in Iran, hackers are tricking people who want to be immunized. Fake texts offering vaccines have been circulating in the country. They contain registration links, which, when clicked on, expose the user’s phone, ask for bank information and send out fresh “worm” texts to its contacts. The country recently imported more than three million vaccines from Russia, China and South Korea.

In the Gulf, where governments are aggressively pursuing herd immunity by summer, “vaccine privileges” have become a new reality, available only to those who have had a full course of shots. In Qatar, only vaccinated residents will be allowed to eat inside restaurants, go to hairdressers or visit gyms. In Saudi Arabia, all employees will be barred from going back to their offices until they’ve been inoculated. In Kuwait, unvaccinated citizens will be banned from traveling abroad from next week.

I’ve reported previously on the ongoing tension in Turkey over the delivery of Chinese vaccines. The process has been fraught with delays and beset by rumors that Beijing might be deliberately withholding doses as a way to pressure Turkey to ratify an extradition treaty between the two countries. The bill could mean that Beijing would be able to deport Uyghur exiles back from Turkey to China, where they face persecution and imprisonment. 

This week, Turkish health minister, Fahrettin Koca, made a rare statement about the situation, saying that “sensitive issues” may have “damaged” vaccine deliveries. He also accused opposition politicians of “trying to ruin our relationship with China” by condemning Beijing’s treatment of Uyghurs. Though the two countries signed an agreement for 100 million doses of China’s Sinovac, Koca said that the second half of the shots had not been delivered. The Chinese embassy in Ankara reportedly denies any political link to the slowdown, saying that it’s due to the ramping up of China’s massive internal vaccination program. 

And now it’s time to highlight some of the excellent work being done by our partners at Chequeado, an Argentina-based nonprofit journalism platform. They recently published a series titled “The Disinformants,” about the biggest players in Latin America’s infodemic. Read on for more.

ARGENTINA’S CHLORINE DIOXIDE CULT

Chlorine dioxide — basically bleach — has long been a favorite pseudoscientific cure among QAnon supporters and other questionable figures. Many in those circles refer to it as “magic mineral solution,” and believe Donald Trump was referring to it when he famously suggested that injecting disinfectant might destroy the virus. In Latin America, Chequeado identified dozens of suppliers marketing and selling the substance to buyers via WhatsApp, Telegram and Facebook groups.

According to advocates, drops of the compound diluted in water can kill the coronavirus and cure other ills, including cancer, malaria and ALS. In reality, it’s a poison that, according to the FDA, can cause “serious and potentially life-threatening side effects” if taken internally. It has not been approved by any regulatory agency in the world.  It’s also the allegedly active ingredient in the so-called “Air Doctor” anti-coronavirus badges I reported on last year. 

In Argentina, influencers posing as bishops have joined leaders of the Genesis II Church of Miracle Healing, which promotes chlorine dioxide as its own kind of holy elixir, to hawk the dangerous quack remedy on a variety of platforms. Chequeado journalist Lucia Gardel spoke to families whose lives have been devastated by the death of loved ones who ingested the chemical. Merchants across Latin America are selling it for astronomical prices — you can get five liters for $7,000. Gardel’s story investigates the people behind the trade.

This week, Chequeado continued its series by investigating the pseudoscience ecosystem in Latin America and beyond. The piece looks at a shadowy network of doctors who push fake cures and deny the existence of coronavirus, and their links to international peddlers of medical misinformation. According to the story, they have “a plan for global domination.”

WHAT WE ARE READING

  • This MIT paper, by a group of researchers who infiltrated a Covid-19 denialist community and studied how its members use “sleights of hand” to distort legitimate data and rally against what they view to be a “condescending, paternalistic elite.” It makes for fascinating reading. 
  • This excellent profile from Mother Jones on the hydroxychloroquine advocate and anti-vaccine activist Simone Gold, mapping her path from Beverly Hills doctor to insurrectionist storming the Capitol alongside Proud Boys and QAnoners. 
  • From the Wall Street Journal, a look (paywalled) at Serrana, a small town in southeastern Brazil, where scientists studying the Chinese-made Coronavac shot are running an experiment to vaccinate every adult in the town and monitor the results. Ninety-eight percent of residents have been fully inoculated compared to just 7% elsewhere in Brazil. Infections are down by 75%, with no deaths among people who have received the vaccine. The town has become an oasis, compared to the rest of the country, where 100 people are dying every hour. 

Many thanks to Masho Lomashvili, Burhan Wazir, and Coda’s newest recruit and longtime contributor Ramsha Jahangir for contributing to this week’s Infodemic. 

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

Got questions? Suggestions? Story tips?  Hit reply any time. We love hearing from you. And please do consider joining our membership program!

See you next Friday.

Isobel Cockerell 

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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