Videos by anti-vaxxer ‘rabbi to the stars’ said fueling vaccine distrust

Yuval Hacohen Asherov has released clips falsely claiming COVID vaccines cause infertility and damage the immune system, and can even be fatal

Rabbi Yuval HaCohen Asherov (YouTube screenshot)
Rabbi Yuval HaCohen Asherov (YouTube screenshot)

The claims of a popular, anti-vaccination rabbi are fueling fears of the coronavirus shot in Israel and have reportedly been blamed by health officials for a slowdown in the country’s vaccination campaign.

Rabbi Yuval Hacohen Asherov, who advises numerous Israeli celebrities, has released videos falsely claiming the vaccines cause infertility and damage to the immune system, and can even be fatal. “There are fears that the coronovirus vaccine can be fatal, causes infertility… and severe allergies that can be fatal,” he said in one clip. “Scientists are saying this. It’s not me who’s saying this.”

Many of his videos have been viewed 100,000-200,000 times.

In one YouTube video, Asherov claimed that the vaccine was untested, said that the millions to whom it is now being given are human guinea pigs, and advised against being part of the experiment.

“The coronavirus vaccine has not undergone any of the routine scientific testing carried out on all other vaccines. That’s the first thing. And what’s happening now is that they’re trying it out on millions of people. This is the trial. Now is the trial. They’re injecting us with it. Well, not us, with God’s help. They’re injecting us with it, and they want to see what the results are,” he said.

Asherov, who has no medical background and whose claims have been debunked by health experts, has been fingered by the Health Ministry for sowing distrust amid a slowdown in demand for vaccines in Israel, Channel 12 reported Monday.

Prof Igor Ulitsky, of the Weizmann Institute of Science, said the rabbi’s videos are full of credible sounding information, “but the trouble is that the punchline is inaccurate.”

Asherov insisted Monday night that “nobody has shown me any reason to change what I’ve said… All I’ve said is that it’s worth waiting a little. Why hurry when there are doubts.”

Ulitsky explained that the vaccines were indeed developed quickly, because “such considerable resources” were allocated to battle the pandemic, and that enabled “a much faster process of trials and checks.” He said the unproven “theoretical dangers” of the vaccine were far outweighed by the unarguable proof of COVID’s contagion and the demonstrable fatality and illness rates it causes.

On Sunday, a senior official in the country’s largest health provider said that the pace of Israel’s inoculation drive had dramatically slowed, accusing online “fake news” of promoting vaccine skepticism.

“At the beginning of the [vaccination] campaign we got used to inoculating between 100,000 and 120,000 people per day, and in the last few days we are barely reaching half of those figures,” Kalanit Kaye, the manager of Clalit’s vaccination drive, told the Ynet news site.

Shortly after Kaye’s comments, Facebook announced that it had removed a major group promoting conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 vaccines that in recent weeks had urged its thousands of members to schedule appointments to inoculate and then to cancel them at the last minute, forcing HMOs to throw out unused doses.

Silhouettes are seen in front of the logo of US social media Facebook in Brussels, February 14, 2020. (Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD / AFP)

The Hebrew-language group was called “No to the green passport,” referring to a document that will enable vaccinated people to attend certain public venues and events and potentially travel abroad without quarantine. Many of its 14,000 members made use of the group to promote unfounded allegations that the vaccine is harmful.

Facebook said that the group violated its community standards regarding fake news.

The removal of the group from the social media platform came after the Health Ministry reportedly asked Facebook to take down the posts of anti-vaxxers bragging about their exploits. The social media giant has pledged to keep anti-vaxxers and those spreading fake vaccination information off its platform.

Speaking to Channel 12 on Monday, Tamila Nazarov, who ran the Facebook page, protested that she is “being treated like a second class citizen” and being barred from malls, because she refuses to be vaccinated.

“I’m not preventing anyone else from being vaccinated. Whoever wants to get vaccinated should get vaccinated. We’re not coronavirus deniers and we’re not conspiracy theorists,” she said of her group.

“It’s illegal for people to be threatened with dismissal from their jobs because they don’t want to get vaccinated. These are our rights.”

She also objected to “being called murderers,” after someone in her group posted last week, “If everyone who doesn’t intend to get vaccinated books an appointment for the vaccine and doesn’t turn up… we’ll get rid of the supplies (into the trash) pretty quickly.”

Israelis receive a COVID-19 vaccine, at a Maccabi Health vaccination center at the Givatayim mall, outside of Tel Aviv, February 04, 2021. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

On Friday a law enforcement official told Channel 12 that police were considering weighing opening a criminal investigation into those anti-vaxxers who had been scheduling appointments with the intention of canceling them.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said last week that the trend was limited, but that those trying to disrupt the vaccination drive were “a dangerous group who are ideologically opposed, like a cult.”

Israel has made its rapid, mass vaccination drive a central strategy in its efforts to end the coronavirus outbreak and has so far given the first of the two-shot Pfizer-BioNTech inoculation to 3,480,406 people, with 2,081,509 having received the second as well. The country aims to have vaccinated all those age 16 and up by the end of March.

Since the start of the outbreak early last year, 692,101 people have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and there have been 5,121 deaths, according to Health Ministry figures released Monday.

There were 67,651 active patients in the country.

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