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Russia’s disinformation campaign aims to undermine confidence in Pfizer, other Covid-19 vaccines, US officials say



WASHINGTON – Russian intelligence agencies launch campaign to undermine trust in Pfizer Inc.

and other Western vaccines, using online publications that have called into question the development and safety of vaccines in recent months, U.S. officials said.

An employee of the State Department’s Global Engagement Center, which oversees disinformation efforts abroad, identified four publications that he said serve as fronts for Russian intelligence.

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

Although the readership is small, US authorities say they are injecting fake stories that can be spread by other Russian and international media.

The Sputnik V vaccine, administered on site in St. Petersburg, Russia, last month.


Photo:

Anton Vaganov / Reuters

“We can say that these sites are directly connected to the Russian intelligence services,” said the employee of the Global Center for Engagement for the sites behind the disinformation campaign. “They are all foreign property based outside the United States. They differ greatly in scope, tone, audience, but they are all part of the Russian propaganda and disinformation ecosystem. ”

In addition, Russian state media and Russian government Twitter accounts have made clear efforts to raise concerns about the cost and safety of the Pfizer vaccine, which experts outside the U.S. government say is an attempt to encourage the sale of Russia’s rival Sputnik V vaccine.

“The emphasis on defamation of Pfizer is probably due to its status as the first vaccine other than Sputnik V, which sees widespread use, leading to a greater potential threat to Sputnik’s dominance,” said the forthcoming report by the NGO Alliance for Securing Democracy. which focuses on the danger that authoritarian governments pose to democracies, and which is part of the German Marshall Fund, an American think tank.

Foreign efforts to sow doubt about the vaccine exploit deep-seated concerns about the efficacy and side effects of vaccines, which have already spread to some communities in the United States and internationally. Concerns about side effects are a major cause of vaccine fluctuations, according to data from the Census Bureau released last month.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied that Russian intelligence agencies were organizing articles against Western vaccines, and said that US authorities incorrectly characterized the broad international debate on vaccines as a Russian conspiracy.

“This is nonsense. “Russia’s special services have nothing to do with any criticism of vaccines,” Mr Peskov said in a telephone interview from Moscow. “If we treat any negative publication against the Sputnik V vaccine as a result of the efforts of the US special services, then we will go crazy because we see it every day, every hour and in all the Anglo-Saxon media.”

A GEC State Department official said four publications had direct links to Russian intelligence and were being used by the Russian government to mislead international opinion on a number of issues.

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

Another publication, the News Front, is run by the FSB, a security service that inherited 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 emphatic, saying the News Front had ties to Russia’s security services and Kremlin funding.

To counter skepticism about its Covid-19 vaccine, Russia has made great public relations efforts at home and abroad. Georgi Kanchev of the WSJ 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, is controlled by the GRU, which is the intelligence directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces. It reflects riots and protests and now appears inactive, a GEC official said.

Earlier, the State Department did not go so far as to say that these sites are controlled or managed by Russian intelligence agencies, a claim that usually relies on US classified intelligence.

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

“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 the Russian disinformation ecosystem evolve and spread false stories about the crisis.”

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

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

although some non-English accounts remained active earlier this year.

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

vaccines can infect Bell’s palsy, in which facial muscles are paralyzed, while a February article focused on a man in California who is said to have tested positive for Covid-19 after being vaccinated against Pfizer.

In any case, Russian outlets repeated real news reports, but ignored conflicting information about the overall safety of the vaccine. Numerous real-world studies and data have shown that vaccines approved by the Food and Drug Administration are safe and effective, and hospitalizations and deaths have begun to collapse in places like Israel, where shots have been widely used, although few side effects have have been reported.

“To date, millions of people have been vaccinated with our vaccine after the approval of regulators in many countries,” said Pamela Eisele, a Pfizer spokeswoman, adding that people with questions should consult the Centers for Monitoring and Control website. disease prevention or their healthcare provider.

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

A November article in New Eastern Outlook says the use of the Pfizer vaccine to edit the mRNA gene is a “radical experimental technology” that lacks “precision” and says it has been accelerated through the approval process with the help of a billionaire. Philanthropist Bill Gates and Anthony Fauci, president, Biden’s chief medical adviser on the Covid-19 pandemic, both accused the article of “playing fast and untied with human lives in their rush to inject these experimental vaccines into our bodies.”

Some articles in New Eastern Outlook have been republished by blogs and alleged international news sites. An article in January claimed that the United States had biological laboratories around the world that could lead to outbreaks of infectious diseases. The article has been 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 Twig, a professor at the University of the British Commonwealth in Virginia who is an expert on global health issues, said the Soviet KGB had accused the CIA of spreading dengue fever in Cuba and malaria in Pakistan.

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“The KGB’s ongoing campaign claims that the US Army’s former biological weapons laboratories in Fort Detrick have triggered the AIDS epidemic,” she said. The Soviet authorities denied responsibility for this misinformation.

Thomas Reed, a Russian disinformation expert at Johns Hopkins University who reviewed the websites quoted by the State Department, said the articles were usually in line with Russia’s “rich history” of using communications technology to mislead both international and the local audience. He called on the US government to do more to publicly explain how it concluded that the websites were controlled by specific Russian intelligence agencies.

As Russia and China seek to sell their vaccines abroad, Pfizer’s open efforts to denigrate it are well documented. The upcoming report by the German Marshall Fund, which was reviewed by the magazine and is due to be published on Monday, analyzes more than 35,000 Russian, Chinese and Iranian government and state media tweets on vaccines from early November to early February. “Russia has provided the most negative coverage of Western vaccines,” it said, “with a remarkable 86 percent of Russian tweets mentioning Pfizer and 76 percent mentioning Moderna coded as negative.”

Study of the origin of Covid-19

Write to Michael R. Gordon at michael.gordon@wsj.com and Dustin Wolz at dustin.volz@wsj.com

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