Infodemic: Bolsonaro’s fake Covid graph and forced Sputnik V shots in Russia

Natalia Antelava


Welcome, and a very special greeting to our new subscribers! We are tracking how disinformation is shaping the world during the pandemic. This week, a dangerous new conspiracy in the U.S., Bolsonaro’s Shuttershock presentation, and signs of forced vaccinations in Russia. Here are the narratives — both real and fake — that have caught our attention and deserve yours.

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Iran is in crisis. The nation has been consistently breaking its own records for coronavirus cases and deaths. International sanctions are crippling the economy and hospitals are filling up. On Iranian Twitter, a new hashtag has been doing the rounds: #thereisnoinsulin. The government says sanctions mean that it is struggling to import insulin for diabetics, which was already in limited supply, and local pharmacies are rationing it, while a black market trade has reportedly sprung up. 

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has a new favorite Covid-19 drug: nitazoxanide, an antiviral, used to treat diarrhea. On Monday, he attended an event at which the science ministry announced results of a clinical trial, with great fanfare but little detail. Twitter users soon noticed an animated chart shown at the event, which mapped a decline without any numbers or labeled axis, and was accompanied by the words: “Scientifically proven to reduce viral load.” After some online investigation, the chart was revealed to be a generic graphic downloaded from Shutterstock. The government now insists it was only used for “illustrative purposes.”

Russia has announced mass production of its Sputnik V vaccine, with plans to produce more than 10 million doses in December alone. Meanwhile, our Russian editor has been speaking to doctors who have been forced to vaccinate themselves with Sputnik V and a Russian-language publication called the Daily Storm has published interviews with students from different universities in Moscow, who say they have been threatened with expulsion if they don’t receive the shot. Vladimir Putin has not yet been vaccinated with Sputnik V. He is still keeping himself safe through some impressively controlled isolation measures.  

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Every week, we wade through dozens of myths and falsehoods percolating on the internet, trying to spot ones that matter. This week, our reporter Mariam Kiparoidze found one: doctors in the United States say they are particularly worried about a new theory doing the rounds on social media.  

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Doctors in the United States are spotting a new trend: more people are refusing flu shots.

Behind this refusal is fear that the seasonal influenza shot is really a secret Covid-19 vaccine. Behind the fear? A new conspiracy spreading on social media. 

Deborah Greenhouse, a pediatrician in South Carolina, posted the following tweet about her patients: “3 different well visits today. All 3 refused #FluVaccine because of a new theory that COVID vaccine is being packaged and given as flu vaccine without consent.” 

She added: “I was unable to persuade them that this was simply not true. What fresh new pediatrician hell is this?” 

Doctors commenting under her post, and some I spoke to, echoed her experience and worries. 

“I just started seeing these pieces of misinformation and it’s incredibly concerning,” Dr. Jeanine Guidry, a behavioral health researcher at Virginia Commonwealth University, told me.

One to watch: The conspiracy is new, and it’s not clear how widespread, but Guidry, who studies health messaging on social media, is worried about its potential spread. 

The annual nature of flu shots have always made them an especially easy target for anti-vaxxers. “Myths about the flu shot are as old as the flu shot itself,” said Dr. Natasha Burgert, a pediatrician in Overland Park, Kansas. But, she says, throw pandemic-induced anxiety into the mix, and people who are simply vaccine-hesitant are standing in front of a wide-open door into the anti-vaxxer movement.  

Doctors say: the influenza vaccine is the most important protection against hospitalization and death from the virus. According to the CDC, during 2018-2019, flu vaccination prevented an estimated:

  •  4.4 million influenza illnesses
  •  2.3 million influenza-associated medical visits 
  • 58,000 influenza-associated hospitalizations
  • 3,500 influenza-associated deaths

Experts believe that, with both Covid-19 and influenza circulating, we might end up with a “twindemic”. 

“This could further strain our public health contact tracing potential, and if it ends up being a bad flu season, could also put a strain on our healthcare facilities and their ability to provide quality care to those infected with either virus,” says Dr. Tara C. Smith, an epidemiologist and professor at Kent State University College of Public Health, Ohio.

“The influenza vaccine is the most important protective factor against hospitalization and death from the influenza virus,” said Dr. Burgert. “The bottom line is the flu shot is safe and effective.”

Burgert went on to add that the vaccine should be sought for “all individuals over the age of six months.”

One other thing is fueling vaccine hesitancy: fear that the new Covid-19 shot is rushed. It’s an understandable concern, but my colleague Isobel Cockerell explains why it’s not something we should worry about. 

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Hungry for more? Make time this weekend for Katia Patin’s dive into the weird world of the anti-5G movement that is flourishing in Russia during the pandemic. 

A quick search for how non-conspiracy theorists are dealing with the pandemic has revealed that millions are painting their houses, while others are … hugging cows. Apparently cow-hugging is a big new thing. Makes sense, since it is 2020. 

Enjoy your weekend, get your flu shot and see you next Friday. 

Natalia Antelava

Editor in Chief, Coda Story

Tracking the war on science around the world

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