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Vaccine skeptics co-opt the AIDS crisis

The Infodemic is a weekly newsletter, tracking how anti-science disinformation is reshaping our world. Also in this edition: Shanghai starves under lockdown, and the real story of the pandemic’s “enduring mysteries”

Prominent figures who have come out against the Covid vaccine have begun telling their followers that Covid vaccines cause AIDS. They’re calling it “VAIDS” — Vaccine-Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome. 

Spoiler alert: this is not a real condition. 

To understand more, I reached out to the members of ScienceUpFirst, an initiative that works with a collective of independent scientists, researchers and health care experts to counter misinformation. 

I asked: what is “VAIDS”? 

Here is the answer: “Vaccine Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (VAIDS) does not exist. It is a made-up condition by players participating in the anti-vaccine movement as a way to induce fear and undermine the safety and effectiveness of vaccines.”

Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, commonly known as AIDS, is a chronic condition that interferes with the body’s ability to fight infection and disease. It is caused by the human immunodeficiency virus, known as HIV. In the anti-Covid vaccine realm, the pseudoscientific argument goes along these lines: Covid vaccines and especially booster shots cause immunodeficiency, leading to “VAIDS.” One prominent peddler of the VAIDS myth is the anti-vaccine business personality Joseph Mercola. Since the start of the pandemic, Mercola has aggressively pushed the idea that vaccines decrease natural immunity and made millions from selling so-called “immunity boosters” among other products. In 2017 he said in an affidavit that his net worth was in excess of $100 million. He told me he views booster vaccines as “the original antigenic sin” and falsely believes that boosters decrease immunity. 

Scientists agree that VAIDS is not a real condition. 

Dr Jonathan N. Stea, a member of the “‘ScienceUpFirst” initiative, commented further. “The use of invented, distorted and misleading language is absolutely a propaganda tactic. It is commonly used in spaces that push pseudoscientific agendas, such as the alternative medicine community.”

HIV and AIDS have long been subjects of manipulation by state propaganda machines and disinformation influencers. Anti-vaccine groups often promote AIDS denialism, regularly giving platforms to people who distort scientific understanding about the disease, or even push false and deadly narratives that HIV doesn’t exist at all.

IN OTHER INFODEMIC NEWS  By Isobel Cockerell

Since my newsletter on Shanghai last week, I’ve gotten numerous tips and stories from inside the city. Among the stories slowly making their way out of locked-down, censored Shanghai is that of Qian Wenxiong, director of the information department in Hongkou district’s health commission. Qian, who had faced overwhelming stress since the lockdown began, killed himself this week. His wife took over his WeChat account to post the news. A rumor circulated that his wife then also took her own life. Chinese media has “debunked” this second rumor, focusing on the fact that Qian’s wife is alive, while skating over the events leading up to the official’s death. 

Right now, my Shanghai sources tell me lack of food is their top concern, while people facing health emergencies are reportedly showing up at hospitals but not getting treated until they return a negative Covid PCR test. Anyone testing positive is hauled off to quarantine centers. 

I’m also hearing reports that children as young as two are being separated from their parents after the latter are sent to quarantine. “My brother is in quarantine in Shanghai,” one Chinese scientist wrote to me. “Last week, his promised three meals a day went down to two, and now to one.” If you have news from Shanghai, do get in touch.

Ukrainian scientists posted to the Antarctic to monitor climate change are watching the war drag on in horror, from their base at the bottom of the world. One geophysicist, Oleksandr Koslokov told the Buenos Aires Times: “my university in Kharkiv where I studied was destroyed. My research institute and scientific equipment in Ukraine are destroyed.” Meanwhile, at the other pole, western countries have frozen funding at Russia’s remote Northeast Science research station in Siberia that since 2000 has hosted dozens of international scientists to study how quickly climate change is thawing the Arctic permafrost. The funding cut will likely mean that the annual measurements at the station will be interrupted. Peter Hergersberg, a spokesman for the Max Planck Society, told Reuters that his Russian colleagues will nonetheless try to keep the station running. 

Anti-abortion activists are touting an unproven “abortion reversal” treatment, as more states in the US adopt strict anti-abortion legislation. After a Texan woman was charged with murder over a “self-induced abortion,” pro-choice nonprofits say there has been a surge in demand for abortion pills. In response, anti-abortion activists have falsely claimed that medical abortions are reversible, calling for women to take doses of the hormone progesterone to halt the abortion. Medical experts say this method is unproven and has never been tested. 

WHAT WE’RE READING

Researchers are beginning to crack one of the “enduring mysteries” of the pandemic: why African countries appear to have seen a lower death toll than the rest of the world. Experts at the University of Lusaka and Boston University who teamed up to conduct a study of corpses in Zambia say that the real Covid toll is much worse than we thought. MIT Tech Review offered a sneak peak at the study earlier this week.

“What am I supposed to do? Wait around to die?” A five-minute phone call made by a Shanghai pensioner to his neighborhood committee has gone viral on Chinese social media. In the call, he tells the local cadre how he is in desperate need of essential supplies — and is told that nothing can be done to help him. China Digital Times has transcribed and translated the revealing conversation. 

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