The United States publicly blasted what it called a Russian disinformation campaign designed to undermine confidence in U.S.-made COVID-19 vaccines and vowed to fight back “with every tool we have.”
“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,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters on March 8.
The comments came after The Wall Street Journal on March 7 reported on findings of the Global Engagement Center — an arm of the State Department – that said Russian intelligence was behind four online platforms involved in a coordinated campaign.
The WSJ said the websites played up risks of the U.S.-made Pfizer vaccine in an apparent bid to boost Russia’s homegrown Sputnik V vaccine.
The websites accentuate actual international news reports that cast a negative view of the vaccines without providing contradictory information about their safety and efficacy, the WSJ reported.
Price said the sites have “included disinformation about two of the vaccines that have now been approved” by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said during a news briefing that “we will fight [the disinformation] with every tool we have.”
Western vaccines were approved after stringent trials that demonstrated efficacy of more than 90 percent with two of the most used vaccines. The Western vaccines compete with Sputnik V, which also recently showed efficacy of greater than 90 percent in a mass trial.
The websites identified by the Global Engagement Center include New Eastern Outlook and Oriental Review, which it says are controlled by Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) and News Front, which it claims is run by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB). News Front is based in Russian-occupied Crimea.
Pfizer’s vaccine has been the main target of the Russian campaign, according to a report on March 8 by the Alliance for Security Democracy, a nonpartisan initiative that studies disinformation by autocratic governments.
“The emphasis on denigrating Pfizer is likely due in part 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,” the Alliance’s report says.
AFP reported that in an assessment provided to it last year, the Global Engagement Center said that thousands of Russian-linked social media accounts have run a coordinated campaign to undermine official narratives on COVID-19.
Following the WSJ report, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied that Russian intelligence agencies were spreading disinformation about Western vaccines and said the United States was trying to blame Russia for the resulting international debate on coronavirus remedies.
The State Department center found that China made a similar effort for a short time but ultimately decided it was more beneficial to highlight its own vaccine efforts rather than to disparage other versions.