Russian Disinformation Campaign Aims to Undermine Confidence in Pfizer and Other Covid-19 Vaccines, US Officials Say


WASHINGTON – Russian intelligence agencies have mounted a campaign to undermine confidence in Pfizer Inc.’s

and other Western vaccines, using online publications that in recent months have questioned the development and safety of the vaccines, US officials said.

An official with the State Department’s Center for Global Engagement, which monitors disinformation efforts abroad, identified four posts that he said have served as fronts for Russian intelligence.

The websites highlighted the risk of side effects from the vaccines, questioned their effectiveness, and said the United States had rushed the Pfizer vaccine through the approval process, among other false or misleading claims.

Although the readership of the media is small, US officials say they inject false narratives that can be amplified by other Russian and international media.

The Sputnik V vaccine is being administered at a site in St. Petersburg, Russia, last month.


Photo:

anton vaganov / Reuters

“We can say that these media are directly linked to the Russian intelligence services,” said the Global Engagement Center official about the sites behind the disinformation campaign. “They are all foreign-owned, based outside of the United States. They vary a lot in their scope, their tone, their audience, but they are all part of the Russian propaganda and disinformation ecosystem. ”

Additionally, Russian state media and Russian government Twitter accounts have made open efforts to raise concerns about the cost and safety of the Pfizer vaccine in what experts outside the US government say is an effort. to promote the sale of the Russian rival vaccine Sputnik V.

“The emphasis on denigrating Pfizer is likely due to its status as the first vaccine, other than Sputnik V, to see massive use, resulting in a greater potential threat to Sputnik’s market dominance,” says a report by forthcoming publication of the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a non-governmental organization that focuses on the danger that authoritarian governments pose to democracies and is part of the German Marshall Fund, a group of US experts.

Foreign efforts to cast doubt on the vaccine exploit deep-seated anxieties about the efficacy and side effects of vaccines that were already prevalent in some communities in the United States and internationally. Concern about side effects is one of the main reasons for doubts about vaccines, according to data from the US Census Bureau.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied that Russian intelligence agencies were orchestrating articles against Western vaccines and said US officials were wrongly characterizing the broad international debate on vaccines as a Russian plot.

“It doesn’t make sense. The Russian special services have nothing to do with any criticism against vaccines,” Peskov said in a telephone interview from Moscow. “If we deal with every negative post against the Sputnik V vaccine as a result of the services’ efforts American specials, we will go crazy because we see it every day, every hour and in all the Anglo-Saxon media. ”

The State Department GEC official said four posts had direct links to Russian intelligence and were used by the Russian government to mislead international opinion on a variety of issues.

New Eastern Outlook and Oriental Review, the official said, are run and controlled by the SVR, or Russia’s foreign intelligence service. They are presented as academic publications and are directed to the Middle East, Asia and Africa, offering commentary on the role of the United States in the world. The State Department said in an August report that New Eastern Outlook was linked to “state-funded institutions” in Russia.

Another publication, News Front, is run by the FSB, a security service that succeeded the KGB, the official said. It is based in Crimea, produces information in 10 languages, and had nearly nine million page views between February and April 2020, the official added. In August, the State Department was less explicit, saying that News Front reportedly had ties to Russia’s security services and Kremlin funding.

To counter skepticism about its Covid-19 vaccine, Russia has built a large public relations effort at home and abroad. WSJ’s Georgi Kantchev explains why the success of Sputnik V is so important to the Kremlin. Photo: Juan Mabromata / AFP via Getty Images

Rebel Inside, the fourth publication, has been controlled by the GRU, which is an intelligence directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces. It covered riots and protests and now appears inactive, the GEC official said.

The State Department had not gone so far before to say that these outlets were controlled or guided by Russian intelligence agencies, a claim generally based on classified US intelligence.

A State Department spokesman did not provide specific evidence linking the posts to Russian intelligence, but said the assessment was “the result of a joint interagency finding.”

“Russian intelligence services have direct responsibility for using these four platforms to spread propaganda and lies,” the spokesman said. “Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic last year, we have seen Russia’s disinformation ecosystem develop and spread false narratives about the crisis.”

News Front, New Eastern Outlook and Oriental Review did not respond to requests for comment.

The social media accounts affiliated with the four websites have been largely removed from Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and Pinterest.,

although some accounts in languages ​​other than English were active earlier this year.

Highlighting reports in the international media, a January article in News Front highlighted the risk that a person receiving the Pfizer or Moderna Inc.

The vaccines could get Bell’s palsy, in which the facial muscles are paralyzed, while a February article focused on a man in California who it said tested positive for Covid-19 after receiving the Pfizer vaccine.

In each case, the Russian media repeated real news but ignored contrary information about the general safety of the vaccine. Numerous studies and real-world data have shown that Food and Drug Administration-approved vaccines are safe and effective, and hospitalizations and deaths have begun to plummet in places like Israel where injections have been widely administered, though a small amount of side effects have been reported.

“To date, millions of people have been vaccinated with our vaccine following the backing of regulators in several countries,” said Pamela Eisele, a Pfizer spokeswoman, adding that people with questions should consult the Centers for Disease Control website. Disease Control and Prevention or your healthcare provider.

A Moderna spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A November article in New Eastern Outlook said that the use of the Pfizer vaccine’s mRNA gene editing was a “radical experimental technology” that lacked “precision” and said it rushed through the approval process with the help from billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates and Anthony Fauci, president. Biden’s chief medical adviser for the Covid-19 pandemic, whom the article accused of “playing fast and loose with human lives in their rush to get these experimental vaccines into our bodies.”

Some New Eastern Outlook articles have been republished on blogs and so-called international news sites. A January article alleged that the United States has biological laboratories around the world that can cause outbreaks of infectious diseases. The article was republished in whole or in part by websites in Bangladesh, Italy, Spain, France, Iran, Cuba and Sweden, which were reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

The United States has long accused Moscow of misinformation on medical issues. Judy Twigg, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and an expert on global health issues, said the Soviet KGB had accused the CIA of spreading dengue in Cuba and malaria in Pakistan.

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“A persistent KGB campaign claimed that the former US Army biological weapons laboratories at Fort Detrick had sparked the AIDS epidemic,” he said. Soviet officials denied responsibility for this misinformation.

Thomas Rid, a Russian disinformation expert at Johns Hopkins University who reviewed the websites cited by the State Department, said the articles were generally in line with Russia’s “rich history” of using communications technology to mislead the public. National and international. He urged the US government to do more to publicly explain how it has concluded that the websites are controlled by specific Russian intelligence agencies.

With Russia and China looking to sell their vaccines abroad, overt efforts to denigrate Pfizer have been well documented. The next report from the German Marshall Fund, which was reviewed by the Journal and will be published on Monday, analyzed more than 35,000 tweets from Russian, Chinese and Iranian state and government media on vaccine issues from early November to early February. “Russia provided by far the most negative coverage of Western vaccines.” it states, “with a remarkable 86% of Russian tweets surveyed mentioning Pfizer and 76% mentioning Moderna coded negative.”

Investigating the origin of Covid-19

Write to Michael R. Gordon at [email protected] and Dustin Volz at [email protected]

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