Anti-vaccine activists and public figures are seizing confusion about the AstraZeneca vaccine rollout to sow further discord and vaccine hesitancy among Australians.
On Wednesday the Queensland government led the charge against a late-night announcement by the prime minister which suggested Australians of all ages could access the AstraZeneca vaccine and their doctors would be protected by a federal government indemnity scheme should any side effects occur.
“I do not want under-40s to get AstraZeneca,” Queensland chief health officer Jeannette Young told a press conference. “I don’t want an 18-year-old in Queensland dying from a clotting illness.”
It was an evocative and direct statement intended to stand up to the federal government, a popular move in Australian politics currently. A slickly produced video clipping up Young’s statements was posted on Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk’s Facebook and Instagram accounts.
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“Even the UK government won’t allow their under-40s to get the AstraZeneca vaccine. This is not the time to risk the safety of our young Australians,” the video is captioned.
Even though the information was wrong (those under 40 in the UK can get the AstraZeneca vaccine if they choose), the clip had its intended effect. The video has been viewed more than 100,000 times on Palaszczuk’s Facebook account — a number far exceeding her normal metrics — and more than a thousand shares.
And one group that was very active in spreading the snippet was anti-vaxxer activists.
The video was shared to several Australian and global anti-vaxxer groups on Telegram, a social media platform embraced by conspiracy theorists and extremists because of its near non-existent moderation. Some groups have tens of thousands of members.
Crikey has chosen not to name groups to limit the spread of their misinformation.
Some interpreted the coordinated pushback against AstraZeneca as a conspiracy to make the Pfizer vaccine look safer by comparison.
“State governments are trying to make themselves and Pfizer look good, don’t get it twisted,” one large Australian anti-vaxxer group posted on its various social media profiles to tens of thousands of followers.
(Both vaccines have been found to be incredibly safe and effective at combating COVID-19.)
Other public figures who have been vaccine-sceptics or full-blown anti-vaxxers embraced it too.
Former Coalition MP Craig Kelly was one. While denying he’s an anti-vaxxer, the independent federal politician has repeatedly spread medical misinformation and argued against the use of COVID-19 vaccines. He welcomed Young’s announcement, sharing a link to the article with followers.
“I never thought I’d say this, but I’m watching brainwashed people talking nonsense on Sky, and Qld CMO Dr. Young is right,” he tweeted.
Former One Nation senator Rod Culleton joined in too, sharing a video of Young from the Rod Culleton’s Great Australia Party Facebook account. Culleton has recruited Pete Evans, perhaps Australia’s most infamous anti-vaxxer celebrity, to run for Great Australia Party at the next election, and has been courting the vote of vaccine-hesitant Australians.
G&B Lawyers, a law firm with anti-vaxxer lawyer Nathan Buckley who has raised money to run class actions suits against vaccine mandates and other public health orders, also posted positively about the confusion.
“Let it be clear that Scott Morrison has gone rogue and has abandoned all Australians under the age of 40,” the firm posted.
Each of these posts had hundreds of engagements, showing that their message had spread wide and indicating that Young’s statement has given a credible piece of ammunition in the guerrilla war against COVID-19 vaccines.