The greatest threat to the global Covid vaccination drive is the growth of a movement determined to discredit it.
It is led by conspiracy theorists adept at swamping social media with absurd and utterly baseless propaganda.
With vaccine uptake of 80 per cent required to achieve ‘herd immunity’, some experts say ‘anti-vaxxers’ pose a bigger threat than the coronavirus.
In the US, where the movement is most vocal, around a third of Americans insist they will not take the vaccine: a huge blow to the inoculation strategy.
Wild and untrue claims made about vaccines online include the claim that they have been created by Microsoft founder Bill Gates to inject microchips into people, and that corona-virus has been made up as part of a ‘plot to enforce vaccination’.
With vaccine uptake of 80 per cent required to achieve ‘herd immunity’, some experts say ‘anti-vaxxers’ pose a bigger threat than the coronavirus. An anti-vaxxer is seen above demonstrating at a rally outside Downing Street
Discredited former doctor Andrew Wakefield, who made bogus claims about links between the MMR vaccine and autism, is at the forefront of fuelling the paranoia about Covid vaccines in the United States.
Now dating Australian model Elle Macpherson, Wakefield has acquired a kind of warped celebrity status, whipping up fears about vaccine safety.
This hysteria is nothing new: in the 1800s, campaigners against the smallpox vaccine warned it risked turning those who received it into cows.
Their catchphrase was, ‘Better a felon’s cell than a poisoned babe’, at a time when those who refused the inoculation could be jailed.
The vaccine, developed by country doctor Edward Jenner, contained cowpox, so many feared that taking it would make you more bovine.
From the late 19th century, the vaccine was no longer mandatory under law, but it is credited with saving millions from a disfiguring disease with a 30 per cent mortality rate.
The greatest threat to the global Covid vaccination drive is the growth of a movement determined to discredit it. It is led by conspiracy theorists adept at swamping social media with absurd and utterly baseless propaganda
Fast-forward to 2020 and crude memes suggest the Covid vaccine could turn you into an ape – not dissimilar to the myths that motivated the Victorian smallpox vaccine sceptics.
And the anti-vaxx lobby is beginning to gain influence in Scotland, where ministers want to give the vaccine to up to one million people by the end of January.
A group called Scotland Against Lockdown (SAL) is among those warning the vaccine might not be safe – and its spokesman is a former SNP, now independent, councillor in North Lanarkshire, former nurse Paddy Hogg.
SAL sprang up after the creation of another interlinked group with the same aim, Saving Scotland, during peak lockdown this year.
Relatively small gatherings on Glasgow Green snowballed into full-scale protests and demonstrations, where social distancing and mask-wearing were rarely, if ever, observed.
Mr Hogg, 60, co-founder of Saving Scotland, said these were grassroots organisations which began with the goal of opposing lockdown, but many followers are also anti-vaxx.
Speakers at their events have included University College Dublin Professor Dolores Cahill, who has said that ‘politicians and the media’ are using Covid ‘as a fear-mongering propaganda tool to try and take away rights from people and to make them more sick and to force vaccinations on us’.
Mr Hogg was charged following a Scottish parliament demonstration in September over allegations that he broke Covid laws by organising anti-lockdown protests.
The case is due to come to court next month. The father of three, who quit the SNP in 2018 in protest against an alleged ‘toxic bullying’ culture, acknowledges that his own three grown-up children had the MMR vaccine without any negative effect – but he fears Covid vaccines have been ‘rushed’.
Mr Hogg, of Cumbernauld, Lanarkshire, passionately believes ‘manipulative’ ministers are attempting to force people into getting Covid vaccines that may not be safe, to enrich shareholders in the pharmaceutical giants producing them.
Asked if it was selfish to refuse the vaccine, because it would hamper efforts to achieve a high community uptake, Mr Hogg said: ‘They’re trying to blackmail people – it’s a guilt trip.
‘If this was a virus with a much higher mortality rate, I would be among the first to get it [the jab], but I won’t take this vaccine – its purpose is to make rich people richer.’
Meanwhile, an NHS nurse has been suspended for spreading Covid conspiracy theories, including that masks help to spread the virus – and likening vaccines to ‘genocide’.
Colleagues reported Tracey McCallum to NHS24 bosses at Crosshouse Hospital near Kilmarnock, Ayrshire, after she branded the outbreak a ‘scamdemic’.
The 45-year-old, from Darvel, was also reported to the Nursing and Midwifery Council after telling people vitamins and minerals could beat off the disease.
Worryingly, it is clear that there is a growing appetite for such dangerously misleading anti- vaccine material.
This hysteria is nothing new: in the 1800s, campaigners against the smallpox vaccine warned it risked turning those who received it into cows. Their catchphrase was, ‘Better a felon’s cell than a poisoned babe’, at a time when those who refused the inoculation could be jailed [File photo]
SAL’s Facebook page has more than 1,200 ‘likes’ and has shared a post by RT, the Kremlin-backed media outlet which employs Alex Salmond as a TV chat show host.
It reported that Boris Johnson had been working with ‘billionaire vaccine evangelist Bill Gates and ten Big Pharma chief executives to discuss rolling out the Covid-19 jab’, which it described as a ‘pharmaceutical love-fest’.
The article in an RT newsletter which purports to provide ‘stories the mainstream media won’t tell you’ said Mr Gates ‘lacks a college degree or medical training’ and describes Covid vaccination as a ‘logistical nightmare’.
A column on the same site says that Donald Trump should not concede the US election. Another questions whether the country was ever a true democracy.
Commenting on the RT Covid vaccine piece on the SAL page, Marsha Devers, describing herself as a Christian grandmother, wrote: ‘There is no way that vaccine could be safe in this short time. Very scary scenario indeed.’
Edinburgh-based Neil Templar Towsey, 45, whose Twitter profile describes him as a ‘cat lover’ and ‘tree hugger’, tweeted about attending a protest rally at Holyrood in October, organised by SAL. Mr Towsey praised a tweet by Frances Leader, a Dorset-based ‘geo-political writer’ with nearly 12,000 followers, which shows a cartoon version of God telling a scientist He ‘forgot to complete the immune system’.
God adds: ‘I count on you [the scientist] to address this.’
Quoting the cartoon tweet, Mr Towsey says that it addresses ‘illusions’ about ‘Western medical practices’.
Another tweet posted by Leader condemns the ‘Rockefeller drug ideology’, and dismisses the ‘medical mafia’ that backs vaccination.
The tweet quotes Hans Ruesch, who opposed vivisection and once wrote: ‘To teach the Rockefeller drug ideology, it is necessary to teach that nature didn’t know what she was doing when she made the human body.’
In another cartoon, the Devil tells passengers in a lift who are looking for ‘Big Pharma’ that it is on ‘the next floor down’.
Others who attend the demonstrations against lockdown do not regard themselves as conspiracy theorists – but say they want a public debate about the restrictions placed on our movements, and about vaccines.
Conan D’Agostini, 42, a warehouse worker from Edinburgh, has been to three anti-lockdown protests outside the Scottish parliament and estimated attendance at upwards of 500 people of all ages.
He said: ‘I think we are being used as guinea pigs.
‘I fear the vaccine will become mandatory by coercion, so if you don’t get it then you won’t be allowed to fly, or go into certain shops, or use public transport.’
Scott Anderson, 29, a civil engineer from Inverness, says he is ‘pro-choice’ rather than ‘anti- vaccine’ and has launched a petition with more than 200,000 signatures, lobbying the UK Government to ‘prevent any restrictions being placed on those who refuse to have any potential Covid-19 vaccine’.
Echoing Mr Hogg’s concern, Mr Anderson said if the vaccine was promoted as a way of ending lockdowns and restarting the economy, it would be ‘blackmail’ and ‘coercion’.
Yet, in September, the UK Government responded to his petition, saying: ‘There are currently no plans to place restrictions on those who refuse to have any potential Covid-19 vaccine.’
A recurring theme among vaccine sceptics is that it has been ‘rushed’ and is therefore unsafe.
Mark Toshner, an NHS doctor specialising in clinical trials and a Cambridge University lecturer, said vaccine development in the past has taken up to a decade – but ‘most of that time is spent doing nothing’.
He said: ‘It’s spent submitting funding requests, then resubmitting them, then waiting, then submitting them somewhere else, then getting the money, but the company changes its mind or focus, then renegotiating then… waiting for regulators’.
Dr Toshner added: ‘However, we have collectively now shown that with money no object, some clever and highly motivated people, an unlimited pool of altruistic volunteers and sensible regulators, that we can do amazing things.’
He insisted ‘safety hasn’t been compromised’.
Professor Sir David Omand, for-mer director of the UK’s spy agency GCHQ, said the anti-vaccination movement is ‘spreading what are effectively lies about the desire to find a vaccine’.
Sir David said it puts ‘all sorts of malign motives behind the Government’ in hunting for a vaccine, which will ‘lift from our shoulders this awful cycle of lockdowns and infections and death’.
He added: ‘What we see and read on social media is simply not reliable information.’
The former civil servant said social media appeals to people’s emotions, which is ‘beginning to distort the rational’.
GCHQ has launched a cyber counter-attack against anti-vaccine propaganda spread by Russia.
It is targeting hostile states and using a toolkit developed to tackle disinformation and recruitment material shared by Islamic State.
The activity being targeted is linked to Moscow, which is thought to be trying to exploit the chaos caused by the pandemic to undermine the West and strengthen its own interests.
Tactics thought to be considered are the takedown of websites and content linked to hostile states, and the disruption of fake news.
GCHQ will attempt to do this by encrypting the state’s own data so they cannot access it and by blocking communication between hostile groups.
Russian propaganda aims to spread fear about the vaccine with ridiculous claims that it will turn people into apes because it uses a chimpanzee virus.
Some anti-vaccine material has been aired on the Russian TV programme Vesti News, said to be the country’s equivalent of the BBC’s Newsnight.
One image shows Boris Johnson walking into Downing Street, but it has been manipulated to make him look like a yeti. It is captioned: ‘I like my bigfoot vaccine.’
Another image shows a chimpanzee in a lab coat from pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca – which is manufacturing one of the vaccines – brandishing a syringe.
America’s Uncle Sam appears alongside another crude image with the message: ‘I want you – to take the monkey vaccine.’
As well as the GCHQ counter-attack, a secretive Army unit specialising in information warfare is also thought to be involved in countering fake narratives about the coronavirus.
General Sir Nick Carter, the chief of the defence staff, has confirmed that the 77 Brigade is ‘helping to quash rumours about mis- information but also to counter disinformation’.
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has also previously highlighted Russia’s role in fake news campaigns during the pandemic.
Some of Britain’s top scientists want to go further and recommend that spreading anti-vaccine conspiracy theories online should be a crime. The Royal Society and British Academy institutions have together called for laws to be drawn up about spreading bogus claims about vaccination on the internet [File photo]
In the summer, Russia was accused by Britain, the US and Canada of trying to hack Western coronavirus vaccine research.
For their part, social media giants say they are trying to combat the dissemination of false information about vaccines.
Rebecca Stimson, Facebook’s head of UK public policy, said: ‘We’re working closely with governments and health authorities to stop harmful misinformation from spreading on our platforms.’
Katy Minshall, head of UK public policy at Twitter, said the platform is ‘focused on protecting the public conversation and helping people find authoritative information’.
And Google UK’s managing director Ronan Harris said: ‘Since the beginning of the Covid-19 epidemic, we have worked relentlessly to promote authoritative content from the NHS and to fight misinformation.’
But some of Britain’s top scientists want to go further and recommend that spreading anti-vaccine conspiracy theories online should be a crime.
The Royal Society and British Academy institutions have together called for laws to be drawn up about spreading bogus claims about vaccination on the internet.
Professor Melinda Mills, a University of Oxford sociologist who published a report about rolling out vaccine doses when they arrive, said: ‘This information can be really damaging, and it’s clever how they spread it through memes and memorable things.
‘These groups are very skilled. They feed on fear, that little grain of truth, and they amplify it.
‘It’s not very interesting when the Government produces passive web pages that say vaccinations are safe.
‘The anti-vaxxers turn everything into a show – they put out things that are engaging, that are visual to their members.
‘Social media channels try to capture this misinformation, but they can’t get everything and so it’s important that the public can spot it so that they don’t share it.
‘Most people aren’t bad, they just don’t realise they are sharing a whole load of misinformation.’
Whatever their intention, the impact could be profound – trapping the world in relentless lockdowns that would cause economic ruin.
Mr Hogg is undeterred, and wants to push the message about the importance of vitamin D, in favour of vaccination.
‘I will do that until my dying breath,’ he said, ‘but I won’t give into blackmail.’