U.S. officials believe that Russia is carrying out a disinformation campaign to discredit the Pfizer COVID vaccine. Russian intelligence has been trying to cast doubt on the effectiveness and safety of the vaccine in an effort to boost their own Sputnik V vaccine.
Four publications acting as fronts for Russian intel agencies have beep publishing disinformation, trying to convince Americans that the approval of the Pfizer vaccine was rushed and shortcuts were taken.
“We can say these outlets are directly linked to Russian intelligence services,” an official at the State Department’s Global Engagement Center told the newspaper. “They’re all foreign-owned, based outside of the United States. They vary a lot in their reach, their tone, their audience, but they’re all part of the Russian propaganda and disinformation ecosystem.”
Russia announced a successful coronavirus vaccine in August, but Sputnik V was approved under questionable circumstances. It was released before it went through phase 3 trials. In the United States, phase 3 is a requirement before a drug or vaccine can be vetted and approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
The rushed timeline led health officials to speculate whether the Kremlin coerced vaccine makers into putting out Sputnik V quickly to gain a leg up in the global race for a cure to the novel coronavirus.
China is still in the game as well, inking vaccine deals with several countries. But it goes without saying that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are the gold standard and are in the most demand around the world.
The problem for other countries is getting their hands on some. The U.S. is “vaccine hoarding” according to the WHO because we are choosing to vaccinate our own citizens before giving it away to others. Here’s where Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine can make inroads in this massive market, and Russian intelligence is doing all they can to help.
“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,” says a forthcoming report by the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a nongovernmental organization that focuses on the danger that authoritarian governments pose to democracies and that is part of the German Marshall Fund, a U.S. think tank.
The foreign efforts to sow doubts about the vaccine exploit deep-seated anxieties about the efficacy and side effects of vaccines that were already prevalent in some communities in the U.S. and internationally. Concern about side effects is a major reason for vaccine hesitancy, according to U.S. Census Bureau data made public last month.
In addition, Russian state media and Russian government Twitter accounts have made an effort to openly disparage and sow doubts about the cost and safety of the Pfizer vaccine.
The Russians have dismissed any idea that the FSB or GRU are engaged in disinformation against the COVID vaccines but the publications mentioned by the State Department have deep ties to Russian intelligence and it’s not likely that they would be conducting this kind of campaign without the approval of top intelligence officials.
Russia can do its worst but its credibility on the vaccine issue leaves much to be desired.