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Argentina’s lethal cult of bleach

The Infodemic is a weekly newsletter tracking how disinformation surrounding the coronavirus crisis is reshaping our world. In this edition: the World Health Organization warns against booster shots and Poland loses billions in Covid-19 support

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“Don’t get a booster shot” is the plea being made this week by the World Health Organization. The WHO is calling for a moratorium on all Covid-19 boosters until the end of the year, after new data showed that, while wealthy nations considering the extra shots have vaccinated on average 50% of their populations, only 2% of adults in low-income countries have had a full course of injections. Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has said that he is appalled at assurances from pharmaceutical companies that vaccine supplies can sustain booster shot rollouts while they are still providing poorer states with the first and second doses. 

Poland has lost billions in Covid-19 recovery support from the European Union, after Brussels suspended the aid as a punitive measure for the country’s adoption of  judicial reforms that undermine EU law. The previously promised recovery funding comprised about $28 billion in grants and $14 billion in cheap loans, intended to provide economic stimulus. This action compounds a recent and separate freeze on about $150 million in EU loans to Polish regions that had declared themselves “LGBT-free zones.” It comes after months of warnings from the EU singling out Poland and Hungary as renegade member states.

Turkmenistan appears to be experiencing yet another wave of coronavirus infections. We say “appears,” because the country still refuses to admit the existence of Covid-19 within its borders. Foreign-based opposition media outlets have reported that coffins cannot be made fast enough to keep up with the surging death rates and that hospitals are delivering bodies back to relatives in plastic bags.

DRINKING BLEACH IN ARGENTINA

Earlier this year, a five-year-old boy died in Argentina after his parents watched a live broadcast of TV host Viviana Canosa drinking bleach to ward off Covid-19, and decided to give it to their child. 

The boy’s death prompted a team of investigative reporters at the non-profit newsroom Chequado to launch an investigation into Argentina’s cult of chlorine dioxide. They identified a network of merchants, some describing themselves as bishops and religious leaders, selling industrial-grade bleach to people across the country for consumption as a preventative treatment for the coronavirus.

Four months later, Argentine police are now following up on Chequado’s investigation. 

On September 2, they conducted 13 raids across the country and arrested 19 people selling the toxic liquid. In April, Laura Zommer provided information to the federal judge investigating the case on the methods that the team of reporters used to identify and locate individuals openly selling chlorine dioxide on WhatsApp, Telegram and Facebook. 

“We explained the methods of our investigation to the federal investigators: that everything we published, they can find. All the data is there,” Zommer said. “The methods included explaining to them how to be part of a closed group on Facebook and other basic things.”

Zommer said she was surprised that it then took four months for law enforcement to act. 

Of the 16 addresses visited by police, 13 were still being used to distribute chlorine dioxide. Almost no one had bothered to hide their supplies or change location. “They did not care that what they were doing was illegal, they were selling it with impunity,” Zommer said.

Luis Enrique Garcia was one of the suspects identified by Chequeado back in April. He was arrested last week. Online Garcia described himself as a bishop of the Genesis II Church and the “only authorized distributor” of chlorine dioxide in Argentina. 

Chequeado reporters who contacted Garcia pretending to be prospective customers were also given the opportunity to purchase holy sacraments from him, delivered via email. Police confiscated commercial-grade chlorine dioxide from Garcia’s home along with a collection of Nazi symbols.

WHAT WE’RE READING

Nine hundred pages of documents were released as part of an ongoing Freedom of Information case brought by The Intercept against the U.S. National Institutes of Health. The documents detail how federal money supported research, carried out in China, into the risks of novel coronaviruses in bats. The proposal highlighted the hazards of such research, outlining how researchers could inhale fecal dust or be bitten by bats used for experiments in laboratories. Molecular biologist Richard Albright, who reviewed the documents, told The Intercept that they hold important details about the creation of novel coronaviruses, which were tested on mice. The documents are a key new development as the scientific debate rages on about whether SARS-Cov-2 developed naturally or originated in a lab. 

On Thursday, Republican Senator Roger Marshall said that, unless the administration begins a thorough investigation into the origins of the virus, he would block President Biden’s judicial nominees from being confirmed by the Senate.

Coda Story’s Isobel Cockerell, Erica Hellerstein and Mariam Kiparoidze all contributed to this week’s Infodemic. Sign up here to get the next edition of this newsletter, straight to your inbox.

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