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It’s no joke: Borat turns to Johns Hopkins scientist for serious COVID vaccine talk

In the matter-of-fact tone of a scientist, Jennifer Nuzzo tells two men via a video hook-up to their home why a microchip wouldn’t fit through the tiny needle used to inject COVID-19 vaccines.

It was another day in what’s become a major side hustle for public health experts like Nuzzo — talking to anyone who will listen about what’s true and what’s not when it comes to the vaccines being used to protect people from an infection and end the coronavirus pandemic.

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A senior scholar in the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in the Bloomberg School of Public Health, she does so many professional webinars and informal talks that her husband made her a shirt that says “Johns Hopkins epidemiologist” and “Ask me vaccine questions.”

So, in keeping with this mission, Nuzzo agreed to consult on the British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest cinematic endeavor: “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm,” in which he plays a slow-witted TV journalist from Kazakhstan who has anti-Semitic and sexist tendencies. (Yes, the film with the bizarre scene with former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and a woman who plays Borat’s daughter.)

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The questions from the two men came in a related documentary project, which began streaming this week on Amazon Prime, that took a stab at countering conspiracy theories in an uncharacteristically serious way for Cohen.

Nuzzo appears in two of six clips in the series called “Debunking Borat.”

“Jim and Jerry, their questions and beliefs, are surprisingly common,” said Nuzzo, referring to the two men with questions about microchips in the vaccines.

Jennifer Nuzzo, center, senior scholar and associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security at the Bloomberg School of Public Health, stands with Caitlin Rivers, left, a senior scholar and assistant professor at the same Hopkins center.
Jennifer Nuzzo, center, senior scholar and associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security at the Bloomberg School of Public Health, stands with Caitlin Rivers, left, a senior scholar and assistant professor at the same Hopkins center. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

“The thing about the microchips, lots of people have asked those questions,” she said. “Normal people, people you know, your neighbors and friends. It’s surprising to me how that misinformation has proliferated to people you think wouldn’t fall prey to Internet conspiracies. For me it’s an important opportunity to educate on some things people have heard.”

She said otherwise couldn’t talk about Cohen or the Amazon series because of non-disclosure agreements.

Nuzzo said she’s learned in her 20 years in the field that she needs to be professional and straight-forward, not “judgy.”

The need is great, the experts say, to counter lies about vaccines, but also real confusion and fears related to the speed of development and safety record of the shots.

The Borat docu-series confronts more from the former category, where people are caught up in social media, right-wing media and other sources of conspiracies.

Another expert the series leans on is Imran Ahmed, CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate.

The center recently released an update to its “Disinformation Dozen,” which traces two-third of the anti-vaccination content widely circulating on social media to 12 people who mostly still are operating online in violation of the platform’s own policies. The report claims 105 pieces of vaccine disinformation posted by the group has been viewed up to 29 million times.

In the face of coordinated efforts to push disinformation — and less conspiratorial and often valid concerns from the public — public health workers, doctors, government leaders and others still have a lot of work to do, Nuzzo said.

About 50% of the country has been at least partially vaccinated, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, but demand from the other half is waning. That has pushed public health providers to shift away from mass vaccination sites to smaller clinics, mobile vans and door-to-door efforts to reach those who are hesitant or lack access to a shot.

But this work can be slow and difficult. A report from the Kaiser Family Foundation released this week found that few who are eager for the vaccine have not gotten a shot.

That report, however, found some measures of hope. For example, Hispanic adults, who have been lagging in vaccinations, are becoming a bit more willing to get a shot. The researchers also said people would be motivated by impending federal approvals for vaccines, which are now only authorized on an emergency basis.

“At this point, there’s almost no low-hanging fruit, but there’s a path toward a slow-but-steady increase in vaccination rates through improved access, information, persuasion and incentives,” said Drew Altman, Kaiser’s president and CEO, in a statement.

Nuzzo would agree. That means she and other medical and public health experts will have to keep on talking and providing science-based answers.

If you see Nuzzo, go ahead and ask the epidemiologist a question.

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