Russian intelligence services are using online platforms to spread lies about the safety and efficacy of two of the three coronavirus vaccines U.S. regulators have approved, a State Department spokesperson confirmed Monday.
Citing unnamed U.S. officials, the Wall Street Journal first reported Sunday that Russian intelligence agencies had launched a campaign to undermine confidence in the Pfizer vaccine and others developed in the West.
Reuters learned from an anonymous State Department spokesperson that Russia was targeting the double-shot Pfizer and Moderna coronavirus vaccines which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have approved.
The Kremlin aims to boost the sale of Russia’s virus vaccine — Sputnik V, by undermining the vaccines approved in the West, the Journal learned from experts outside the government.
Asked about to comment on the Journal’s report, Ned Price, a State Department spokesperson, told reporters on the record Monday:
The report you’re referring to noted, and we can, in fact, confirm that [the State Department’s] Global Engagement Center [GEC] has identified four Russian online platforms that are directed by Russian intelligence services and spread disinformation.
These sites have, in fact, included disinformation about two of the vaccines that have now been approved by the FDA in this country. It is very clear that Russia is up to its old tricks. And in doing so is potentially putting people at risk by spreading disinformation about vaccines that we know to be saving lives every day.
The Global Engagement Center and other entities here [are] focused on countering disinformation and propaganda globally, not only in the Russian context but, of course, the Russians have been engaged in this effort for some time now.
The Kremlin intelligence officers have reportedly used four online publications in recent months that have questioned the U.S. vaccines’ development process and safety, U.S. officials told the Journal on condition of anonymity.
According to the newspaper, the GEC official identified four publications used as fronts for Russian intelligence to mislead opinion worldwide on several issues: New Eastern Outlook, Oriental Review, News Front, and Rebel Inside.
The Journal reported:
The websites played up the vaccines’ risk of side effects, questioned their efficacy, and said the U.S. had rushed the Pfizer vaccine through the approval process, among other false or misleading claims.
Though the outlets’ readership is small, U.S. officials say they inject false narratives that can be amplified by other Russian and international media.
Referring to the Kremlin campaign’s sites, the unnamed GEC official directly linked the outlets to the Russian intelligence services.
“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,” the official added.
“The State Department had previously not gone so far as to say that these outlets were controlled or guided by Russian intelligence agencies — an assertion that generally relies on U.S. classified intelligence,” the Journal pointed out.
Russia state media and Russian government Twitter handles have also reportedly engaged in overt efforts to raise concerns about the Pfizer vaccine’s cost and safety to promote the sale of Russia’s own Sputnik V.
On Monday, the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) that focuses on the danger that authoritarian governments pose to democracies, issued the report on how Russia, China, and Iran “have shaped and manipulated coronavirus vaccines narratives.”
“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,” according to the report issued by the NGO, a component of the German Marshall Fund, a U.S. think tank.
Monday’s report revealed that U.S. rivals Russia, China, and Iran are trying to denigrate Pfizer to sell their vaccines abroad. Russia is reportedly providing the most hostile coverage of Western vaccines.
Data made public by the U.S. Census Bureau last month revealed that side effects are a major reason for refusing the vaccine.
The FDA has approved three vaccines developed by Moderna, Pfizer, and Johnson and Johnson. Unlike the other two, the Johnson vaccine only requires one dose.