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Britain’s Pfizer vaccine announcement gives anti-vaxxers unlikely boost blamed on Russia without any evidence

Britain’s Pfizer vaccine announcement gives anti-vaxxers unlikely boost blamed on Russia without any evidence
The UK’s approval of Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine was heralded by the government as a breakthrough for “humanity.” However, its announcement was met with a surge of vaccine skepticism online.

Britain became the first nation in the world to approve the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine for widespread use on Wednesday. The announcement was delivered in pompous style by the government, with Business Secretary Alok Sharma celebrating how “the UK led humanity’s charge against this disease,” and Health Secretary Matt Hancock volunteering to take the jab on live television with ITV’s Piers Morgan.

Also on rt.com ‘Sickening PR stunt’ or clever public outreach? UK Health Secretary Hancock agrees to take Pfizer jab live on TV with Piers Morgan

Not everyone was as thrilled. Shortly after the announcement, two curious terms began to trend on Twitter: ‘Swine Flu’ and ‘Thalidomide.’

Commenters did a little digging, and realized that vaccines and medications have, in the past, caused some horrific side effects. Back in 2009, the British government approved a swine flu vaccine manufactured by Pfizer-linked drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline. The shot left 60 people with brain damage in the UK, and caused narcolepsy and cataplexy in around 800 children across Europe.

Many brought up Thalidomide, a tranquilizer and painkiller given to pregnant women in the 1950s and 60s to treat morning sickness. Thalidomide, which is not a vaccine and did not undergo clinical trials in pregnant women, caused up to 10,000 cases of birth defects and death in newborn babies in the UK alone.

Outside of these trending topics, users researching Pfizer for the first time came across a litany of misdeeds by the American pharma firm, including illegal marketing of its drugs, overcharging the NHS, testing dangerous medications in Africa, and bribing doctors to prescribe its products.

Some Twitter users weren’t having any of it. “If you're planning to refuse the Covid vaccine because of some garbage you read on the internet about Thalidomide or Swine Flu, step aside,” one wrote. “I'll happily take your place in the queue.”

And naturally, some blue-checked Twitter users blamed Russia for the surge in anti-vaccine comments, even though Russian President Vladimir Putin announced on Wednesday that large-scale vaccination would begin in the country as early as next week.

Whatever the relevance of these scandals to the upcoming vaccine, discussion like this poses a direct challenge to the British government’s vaccine rollout, at a time when more than a third of the UK population already say they’re either uncertain or very unlikely to take the shot.

Hancock told LBC radio on Wednesday that the ‘anti-vaxx’ movement in the UK isn’t growing, and that “the number of people who want to have the vaccine is increasing.”

Behind the scenes, however, the government doesn’t appear as confident. In parliament later on Wednesday, Labour Party leader Keir Starmer pressed Prime Minister Boris Johnson to clamp down on “dangerous, frankly life-threatening misinformation” on vaccines, demanding fines for companies that spread such information. Johnson assured Starmer that the government was working already to combat these “online harms.”

Also on rt.com UK wants to use literal army to fight ‘anti-vaccine propaganda’ online. Are we in a budding totalitarian state?

According to a recent Sunday Times report, part of this effort involves mobilizing an army psychological warfare unit to hunt down anti-vaccine content online. The unit involved was initially created to aid the fight against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, but ahead of a vaccine rollout has been directed to wage an information war closer to home.

The UK’s signals intelligence agency, GCHQ, has also been tasked with countering “disinformation,” the Times reported. As for what exactly the army and GCHQ will do once they find this content, that much remains unclear.

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