Anti-vaxxer groups are exploiting fears around the safety of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine to further undermine trust in doctors and encourage people to decline jabs protecting them from Covid-19, experts have warned.
Sweden, Latvia, Germany, France, Italy and Spain are among the countries in Europe to have suspended use of the vaccine as a precautionary measure following reports of blood clots.
While the European Medicines Agency (EMA), the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the International Society on Thrombosis and Hemostasis have claimed the benefits of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine outweigh the risks of side effects, malicious anti-vaccine actors are taking advantage of the uncertainty to further their own agendas.
Sherri Tenpenny, an American physician and prominent anti-vaccination activist who has claimed the Covid-19 vaccines cause both autoimmune diseases and death, and the TR News, the “counter-culture journalism” site founded by former EDL leader Tommy Robinson, are among the figures and groups sharing the news to tens of thousands of social media followers.
TR News, which has more than 87,000 followers on messaging platform Telegram, has called the AstraZeneca jab the “Bill Gates wonder vaccine” and shared both video resources explaining how to “avoid being coerced” into receiving a Covid-19 vaccination and an article claiming boxer Marvin Hagler had died from the after-effects of the vaccine.
His widow Kay Hagler has since said the vaccine did not play a role in Hagler’s death, adding: “Now is not the time to talk nonsense”.
Imran Ahmed, chief executive for the Centre for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), said anti-vaxxers would be looking to exploit the news because they want the vaccine to fail and in turn reduce the number of people who trust doctors and increase the potential market for their false cures.
“They’re celebrating and spinning the news because they will seek to adapt their master narratives to whatever events occur over the course of this pandemic,” he told i. “Most traditional media outlets are being careful to report this story in a responsible way, in contrast with the anti-vax industry who are seeking to weaponise this story to damage public confidence in vaccination.”
“Anti-vaxxers are going to take the blood clot reports are proof the vaccine doesn’t work and that it proves it’s dangerous – that’s madness,” he said.
“That’s why it’s really important that we look to global coordinating health organisations like the WHO for their opinion, because they are thinking about global public health, and not the impact of a decision taken by an individual country, especially because it can be weaponised by international malignant actors like anti-vaxxers.”
Dr Rachael Kent, lecturer in Digital Economy and Society Education at King’s College London, said anti-vaxx and conspiracy theorisation fails to look at information objectively in a peer-reviewed scientific way because it challenges the false narrative they create online.
“Fundamentally, it will always be picking up on any potential issues, limitations or controversies rather than looking at the positive implications or the legitimate science that supports the vaccine being rolled out,” she told i.
“The anti-vaxxers have extracted something that supports their narrative: that the AstraZeneca vaccine is unsafe as a whole, rather than recognising that there are risks with any vaccine or kind of medicine. All kinds of medical information should come from a reliable, peer-reviewed source.”