SOFIA -- Ivaylo Ivanov was thumbing through a folder of documents at his spartan doctor's office in Novo Selo, a sleepy village in northern Bulgaria, when he got an unexpected visit on January 17.
With his camera on, one of the country's most notorious anti-vaxxers, Ventsislav Angelov, stormed in, followed by a woman whose husband -- with a history of heart issues -- had died after apparently being vaccinated against COVID-19 by Ivanov.
"I'm going to kill you, I'm telling you! Hey, you bastard!" Angelov, who also goes by the nickname "Chicago," can be heard yelling in the video broadcast live on his Facebook page.
Angelov, who has dabbled in right-wing politics and is a conspicuous crusader against coronavirus lockdown measures and vaccinations, was later arrested amid an outpouring of support for Ivanov, who was bloodied in the attack, as was Angelov.
The mayor of Novo Selo, Mareila Yordanova, told RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service that Ivanov was shaken by the incident and had given testimony to police. "Right now, several villages don't have a doctor because of this case," Yordanova said on January 18.
The incident has again shined the spotlight on Bulgaria, an EU country of some 7 million where less than 30 percent of the population has been vaccinated and is struggling to contain a fifth wave of the pandemic.
Bulgaria reported a record 11,181 coronavirus infections in a single day on January 18, official data showed, dominated by the more contagious omicron variant.
Bulgaria's tally of infections exceeds 840,000, with 32,332 deaths since the pandemic began.
It's unclear what, if any, charges Angelov could face, but the Bulgarian Medical Union (BLS) has urged police to prosecute the case to the fullest. "The BLS will not tolerate doctors being humiliated, harassed, and attacked while trying to do their job," it said.
It's one of two attacks on medical personnel reported in Bulgaria in recent days.
Relatives of a patient in a COVID-19 ward barged into a hospital in Ruse, a city in northeastern Bulgaria, claiming he did not have the virus and demanding he be moved, Bulgarian National TV reported on January 18.
In the wake of the two incidents, Health Minister Asena Serbezova has come to the defense of the country's health workers, saying they deserve respect and not violence, in a Facebook post.
The new centrist government led by Prime Minister Kiril Petkov has repeatedly appealed to Bulgarians to get inoculated, so as to avoid pressure on hospitals that could force tougher curbs.
Much of the anti-vaccine skepticism in Bulgaria is fueled by disinformation dispensed across social media platforms by the likes of Angelov and other prominent individuals and politicians, most notably, but not limited to, members of the ultraright Revival party with its anti-NATO, anti-EU, and COVID-19 conspiracy-spinning agenda.
Revival members, led by party leader Kostadin Kostadinov, who has described COVID-19 vaccines as an "experiment," were out in force as a large crowd gathered outside parliament in Sofia on January 12. Up against a cordon of riot police, they were protesting vaccines and other COVID-19 measures, including possible vaccine mandates or so-called vaccine passports.
However, the party suffered a bit of embarrassment recently after Bulgaria's private and independent bTV reported that four of Revival's 13 lawmakers in parliament -- Nikolay Drenchev, Ivo Ruschev, Stoyan Taslakov, and Daniel Petrov -- had apparently ignored the party line and gotten the jab. Like the others questioned by bTV, Ruschev denied he was opposed to the COVID-19 vaccinations, but cast it as a question of personal choice.
"The fight at the moment is not for vaccinated or not vaccinated people. We are not fighting for that. We are fighting for people's rights. I have made my own choice and have been vaccinated," Ruschev said.
Widely Quoted Disinformation
To back up their claims, Drenchev and other anti-vaxxers in Bulgaria often quote Atanas Mangarov, a Sofia-based pediatrician and infectious-diseases specialist.
Mangarov is widely quoted in Bulgarian media and has millions of followers on TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube, where he cites his own refusal to get vaccinated and shares stories about vaccine setbacks and opposition to vaccine mandates.
He rejects the kind of immunity that comes with vaccination in favor of natural immunity through infection, which he says is the only guarantee against new coronavirus variants.
Amid the disinformation spun by Mangarov and others including Angelov, the Bulgarian Health Ministry was moved to issue a statement on January 18 stressing that there was no scientifically backed link between COVID-19 vaccinations and any deaths from inoculation.
"In Bulgaria, there is no case of a proven causal link between the COVID-19 vaccine and death," the Health Ministry said in a statement quoted by RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service.
After the fracas in Novo Selo, RFE/RL tried unsuccessfully to contact both Angelov and Ivanov.
The BLS said it would stand by Ivanov, offering legal assistance to him as well as any other "doctor who has been subjected to violence."
It was unclear what charges, if any, Bulgarian prosecutors might level against Angelov, who has had several run-ins with the law in the past.
In September, a group of anti-vaxxers confronted a medical team at a vaccine center in the Black Sea port city of Varna, hurling verbal abuse at the doctors, demanding they stop administering the shots.
Yordanova, the mayor of Novo Selo, said Ivanov was shaken by the incident but was relatively OK, "as far as one can be well in such a situation."
She also added details about the local man who had died days after being inoculated. According to Yordanova, the family of the dead man has been living in Germany for at least 10 years and the man had had several heart surgeries abroad.
"He just had heart problems. They didn't tell the doctor about it," the mayor said, who stressed that Doctor Ivanov was valued in the village and others nearby. "The doctor has been serving us for years and doesn't deserve this treatment at all."