Commentary on Political Economy

Monday 8 March 2021



Russians ‘spreading false vaccine claims’

The young join in at a mask buring in Boise, Idaho, on Saturday. Picture: AFP
The young join in at a mask buring in Boise, Idaho, on Saturday. Picture: AFP
  • By Charlie Mitchell
  • An hour ago 

Russian agents have mounted a sophisticated disinformation campaign in the US to exploit fears over coronavirus vaccines and play up their side effects, officials have warned.

State Department representatives said that publications acting as a cloak for Russian intelligence were spreading false claims about the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, which have both been approved by US regulators.

Allegations of Russian meddling in the vaccine rollouts of Western nations are mounting as Moscow markets its own Sputnik V coronavirus jab around the world. The Times reported last year on a Russian disinformation campaign designed to sow fear about the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine by circulating pictures and video clips claiming that the British-made vaccine could turn people into monkeys.

The efforts were targeted at countries where Russia hopes to sell its serum, as well as Western nations.

US officials identified four websites, presenting themselves as academic publications, which were playing up the risks of vaccine side effects, questioning their efficacy and claiming that American regulators had rushed the ­approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

“We can say these outlets are directly linked to Russian intelligence services,” an official at the State Department’s global engagement centre told The Wall Street Journal.

“They’re all foreign-owned, based outside the US. They vary a lot in their reach, their tone, their audience, but they’re all part of the Russian propaganda and disinformation ecosystem.”

Officials say while the sites’ readership is small, the misinformation can be spread through ­social media. That could add to existing fears in communities, where scepticism about public health measures and vaccines has grown. Nearly one in three Americans definitely will not or probably will not get a COVID-19 vaccine, according to a survey by the Associated Press and the NORC Centre for Public Affairs Research. On Saturday, protesters across the state of Idaho burnt face masks.

US officials claim that the ­efforts to undermine Western vaccines could be an attempt by the Kremlin to take a lead in the global vaccine race. America has been rolling out vaccines since December and has approved the Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson jabs. More than 57 million Americans have already had at least one dose.

Russia’s vaccine, which has been widely marketed to developing nations, attracted controversy after it was released before stage-three trials, a requirement for ­approval in the US.

Critics speculated that the Kremlin had intervened to speed up the process.

“The emphasis on denigrating Pfizer is likely due to its status as the first vaccine besides Sputnik V to see mass use, resulting in a greater potential threat to Sputnik’s market dominance,” a report by the Alliance for Securing Democracy says. The paper, due out on Monday night, was seen by The Wall Street Journal.

The alliance is part of the German Marshall Fund, a US think tank. It analysed more than 35,000 Russian, Chinese and Iranian government and state media tweets related to vaccines between November and February. It found that 86 per cent of the Russian tweets surveyed mentioned Pfizer and 76 per cent mentioned Moderna to cast the vaccines in a negative light.


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