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An Ohio school board meeting makes a splash in Iran

The Infodemic is a weekly newsletter tracking how disinformation surrounding the coronavirus crisis is reshaping our world. In this edition: An Ohio school board meeting makes a splash in Iran, vaccine in an Uzbek tomato and Covid sex party in Thailand

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FROM OHIO TO IRAN

At an August school board meeting in Talawanda School District in Ohio a man stood up. My name’s Dr. Sean Brooks, PhD um… Oxford,” he said, claiming he’d written 23 books. He then warned, with perfect authority, that people who had taken the mRNA vaccines would die in the next six months to five years. “If you take any booster shot, you will die. That’s it!” he said. He was treated to whoops and applause from the other attendees.

The recording of a 2.5 hour long, sparsely attended school board meeting in the Midwest makes a very boring watch. But that did not stop Brooks from becoming a bit of a global sensation. 

Soon enough tens of thousands of people around the world were watching and sharing clips of Brook’s speech on Facebook, TikTok, Telegram and BitChute.  “Stay strong brothers and sisters. Do NOT comply with the government. Our freedom is on the line,” wrote one viewer on the Infowars’ video site run by far-right conspiracy influencer Alex Jones, where the clip was picked up and viewed at least 1.8 million times. 

The video also proved very popular in Iran, where it was posted on several websites and some of the country’s biggest Telegram channels, including one owned by the Iranian Cyber Corps, a hacker group loyal to Iran’s supreme leader. Iranian fact-checking site Fact Nameh said they received many requests to debunk the content.

But turns out it is not just Sean Brook’s unfounded vaccine claims that need debunking. It is the man himself.  

Brooks did go to university in Oxford. Oxford, Ohio that is, where he got his bachelor’s degree in education at the Miami University. Ohio’s second oldest university is a perfectly respected institution, but it is not the ancient British university most people outside of Ohio thought he was alluding to. 

As one Facebook viewer put it “This man is so DANGEROUS because he sounds like he knows what he’s talking about.”  

IN OTHER NEWS:

This week Italian policemen lined train stations from Naples to Milan, bracing for major disturbances from the anti-lockdown protesters. Last week, members of the Italian anti-vaxxer movement attacked journalists, politicians and doctors in major cities, calling them traitors and threatening to cut their throats. More violence was expected as the government rolled out a requirement for a vaccine pass for public transport on Wednesday, but when the day dawned, the protests went with a whimper, not a bang. Officers were met with just a few dozen quiet protesters. The anti-vaxxers are already planning a new D-day: 15 September, where they plan to all gather in Rome.

Pandemic Panzanella, anyone? Uzbekistan is hoping to develop the first edible vaccine to fight Covid-19. And it will take the shape of a… tomato. Scientists at Tashkent’s Academy of Sciences told the local Sevimli TV that they had modified tomato cells by inserting parts of the virus into it. Eating this modified tomato should — in theory — enable a person to produce antibodies. It’s not as bonkers as it sounds:  edible vaccines have been developed and tested since the 1990s (most promisingly with potatoes to fight off Hepatitis B). A Covid-19 lettuce vaccine developed by Canadian scientists with the University of Ottawa is in the first phase of trials now. Edible vaccines are thought to be potentially a promising method of vaccination for developing countries, where distribution and production are a challenge. 

At least some Covid patients are having fun. Health officials in Thailand’s Samut Prakan province decided to separate a Covid-19 field hospital into male and female zones, after reports last week that some patients had group sex and been smuggling in cartons of cigarrettes. Following a tip-off from a staff member, the police raided the hospital last Thursday, giving everyone a telling off.

WHAT WE’RE READING:

  • This new report by Australian researchers delves into how China has used the pandemic to expand its already massive surveillance and data-gathering infrastructure, exposing how the State Council plans to hold onto these new capabilities in the long term, so they can better monitor citizens. The researchers discuss their findings in this Conversation article. The pandemic, the researchers say, has been a golden opportunity to “patch gaps” in their surveillance grid, “using the Covid crisis as cover to avoid citizen backlash.”
  • And if I may — here’s my own investigation into the strange case of top Chinese infectious disease expert Zhang Wenhong — who is sometimes dubbed “China’s Dr.Fauci.” The most attentive Infodemic readers will remember I mentioned the case last week. We now have more for you here

Coda Story’s Mariam Kiparoidze, Sasha Tyan and Katia Patin contributed to this week’s Infodemic. Sign up here to get the next edition of this newsletter, straight to your inbox.

Talawanda is the name of a school district in Ohio, not a town. The college is Miami University. An earlier version said University of Miami.

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