The Infodemic — Cases soar in the Middle East and the unstoppable rise of vaccine diplomacy

Welcome. We are tracking how disinformation is shaping the world during the Covid-19 pandemic. Today, from refugees in the Middle East to classroom disruptions in Poland, here are the latest narratives — both real and fake — that have grabbed our attention and deserve yours.

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A new study suggests that Covid-19 may have hit the emergency rooms of LA before Christmas last year. Examining patient records from that time, researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles found an unexpected spike in respiratory infections. They believe these figures may indicate that the coronavirus was circulating globally well before it was first reported in Wuhan. Other U.S. researchers aren’t convinced, saying there is no evidence that the infections were in fact Covid-19. But Chinese state media has seized upon the study, citing it as evidence that the virus did not originate in the People’s Republic. “If true, that would shake up the current narrative,” the Beijing-owned China Daily stated.

Wherever it originated, Covid-19 is spiking around the world and the situation is especially grim across the Middle East. The United Arab Emirates reported 930 new cases Friday, the nation’s highest tally in four months. A Dubai department store has also been shut down after holding a flash sale, during which customers flouted coronavirus regulations  While wealthier Gulf states will weather the storm, hospitals are being overwhelmed in Iraq and Lebanon, the first cases of Covid-19 have now been confirmed in Jordan’s camps for Syrian refugees and over 200 UN staff in Syria have been infected. This report states that Syria’s war-torn northern regions have experienced a whopping 1,000% increase in cases. “After nearly 10 years of war, the health system in the northeast was already incredibly weak – and the pandemic is going to push it beyond breaking point,” Dr. Mohammed Abdalgadir of the International Rescue Committee told The New Arab. 

School has started in Eastern Europe — and so have the classroom coronavirus rumors. On Ukrainian social media, parents are sharing posts claiming that the prolonged wearing of protective masks causes oxygen deprivation in children. One even provided a “life hack:” poking small holes in face coverings that are meant to shield the wearer from infection. In neighboring Poland, one father broke into his child’s classroom and ordered students to remove their masks because “coronavirus isn’t real.” Local police in the town of Koluszki had to remove him from the premises.

The world held its breath this week, when scientists at the University of Oxford halted phase III trials of their Covid-19 vaccine after a participant fell ill. I couldn’t help but think of the Indian horse breeder turned billionaire in charge of the Serum Institute in Pune — the world’s biggest vaccine manufacturer. The Poonawalla family, profiled in this brilliant New York Times piece, bet big on the Oxford vaccine and committed to producing a billion doses in July, before the phase III trials had even begun. But it’s not just the Serum Institute. Whoever comes up with an effective immunization, Indian companies will play a key role in making and getting it to us. Vaccine diplomacy is already well under way. Gautama Mehta has more on this below.

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India’s Vaccine Diplomacy by Gautama Mehta 

India has an enormous capacity for the production of vaccines. 

According to Rory Horner, an expert on the Indian pharmaceutical industry at the University of Manchester, “If any Covid vaccine is widely accepted as being effective by the global health and scientific community, it will end up needing to be manufactured in India, in order to reach appropriate scale.” 

The country is already leveraging this power in its foreign relations. On a recent visit to Dhaka, Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla offered Bangladesh priority access to any forthcoming vaccine made in India. 

“When the vaccine is produced, it goes without saying that our closest neighbors, friends, partners and other countries will be part of it,” Shringla said. 

In a competition for geopolitical influence, India and its strategic rival China have both promised Bangladesh access to as yet unavailable immunizations. China has also offered loans to buy its prospective vaccine to a host of countries across Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Seven Indian companies are working on developing a vaccine. One candidate, named Covaxin, is expected to move into Phase II trials in the coming week. But it appears likely that an effective immunization will be conceived outside India’s borders, and negotiating with the countries working to do so is a diplomatic endeavor.

India is now considering manufacturing and testing Sputnik V. Moscow’s controversial vaccine, which was released before undergoing phase III trials, has been met with skepticism in the West. But the old friendship between Moscow and New Delhi has ensured a much warmer reception in India. 

Since the Soviet era, Russia has “shared its highly secretive and highly advanced technologies with India, for export to third countries, which the West didn’t do,” said Anuradha Chenoy, an expert in Indo-Russian relations and former dean of Jawaharlal Nehru University’s School of International Studies.

Hungry for more: 

  • Coda’s Isobel Cockerell dives into the world of  Facebook’s Covid-19 recovery groups and finds fear, stigma and some support too 
  • Filip Brokes introduces us to Switzerland’s teenage pseudoscience queen
  • And in Turkey, a journalist is arrested for tweet making fun of a 13th-century sultan

As ever, many thanks for reading. We love getting your comments, feedback and questions. I am on [email protected]. Get in touch anytime. Have a great weekend and we’ll see you on Monday,

Natalia Antelava

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. We work with dozens of local and international reporters, video journalists, artists and designers to bring you stories you haven’t seen elsewhere, provide you with context missing from the news cycle and illuminate the continuity between the crises we cover. Support Coda now and join the conversation with our team. No amount is too small.

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Natalia Antelava

Natalia Antelava is the Editor-in-Chief of Coda Story.

Get in touch via [email protected]