Kremlin dismisses vaccine disinformation campaign accusations as ‘circus’
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov dismissed the reaction of the UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab to the Times report saying that Russia is engaging in a disinformation campaign to discredit the Oxford University coronavirus vaccine in an effort to promote its own vaccine Sputnik V, developed by the Gamaleya Institute.
“Commenting on the accusations against Russia is getting more and more circus-like,” Peskov said in a conference call with reporters Friday. “Russia is not misinforming anyone, Russia proudly talks about its successes and Russia shares its successes regarding the first ever registered [coronavirus] vaccine in the world.”
The Times published a report on Friday outlining a supposed Russian disinformation campaign “designed to undermine and spread fear about the Oxford University coronavirus vaccine.” The campaign involves spreading memes and videos suggesting the vaccine, manufactured by a pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca is “a monkey vaccine” that could turn people into monkeys because it uses a chimpanzee virus as a vector, according to the newspaper.
“We know that Russia has got a track record in this area. Previously we’ve commented and called them out on it,” Raab said in an interview with Sky News.
“But anyone trying to basically sabotage the efforts of those trying to develop a vaccine I think are deeply reprehensible. It’s unacceptable and unjustified in any circumstances.”
The Times said a “whistleblower” “involved in the campaign” passed on the images to the paper out of concern about potential damage to the public health efforts. The newspaper notes it is not clear whether the campaign was directly authorized by the Kremlin but added “there is evidence that some Russian officials were involved in its organisation and dissemination.”
“Misinformation is a clear risk to public health. This is especially true during the current pandemic which continues to claim tens of thousands of lives, significantly disrupt the way we live and damage the economy,” Pascal Soriot, CEO at AstraZeneca, said in a statement.
“I urge everyone to use reliable sources of information, to trust regulatory agencies and to remember the enormous benefit vaccines and medicines continue to bring to humanity.”
Disinformation is “reckless and contemptible behaviour that could lead to real damage to people’s health”, said a source in Whitehall, the area in central London where key UK ministries are based. “This sort of lie fundamentally harms all of us around the world and we need to be alert to identify and counter this kind of activity to support the provision of factual information for all people about Covid-19 and vaccines.”
When asked to comment on the article, the Kremlin spokesperson in turn accused the UK of spreading disinformation about the Russian vaccine suggesting it’s a testament to the unfair competition in the vaccine race.
“Russia already has documents of intention to sell or jointly produce this vaccine in a number of countries, and of course in these countries Russia is not shying away from informing [the public] about the advantages of our vaccine,” Peskov said. “A number of [producers] who could be called competitions, they are the ones engaging in disinformation, the disinformation agents are sitting in the UK, among other places.”
According to the Times, the campaign was aimed at “countries such as India and Brazil where Russia was trying to market its own vaccine” as well as Western countries that are developing their own vaccines. To date, Russian sovereign wealth fund (or the RDIF), which sponsors the vaccine, said it reached deals to supply Sputnik V to India and Brazil, among others.
RDIF said it condemns social media attacks against AstraZeneca vaccine.
“We condemn the social media posts aimed to denigrate AstraZeneca vaccine described by The Times today. We believe any attempts to smear any vaccine are wrong including those against Gamaleya’s Sputnik V vaccine,” Kirill Dmitriev, the CEO of the RDIF, told CNN in a statement Friday. “All vaccines should, of course, be subject to the most rigorous scientific investigation.”
However, the “monkey vaccine” narrative has been voiced by Russian officials and the state media before.
On September 9, following the news of a pause in AstraZeneca’s global trials due to an unexplained illness, Dmitry Peskov said the British vaccine is less safe as it is a “monkey vaccine” while the Russian development is a “human vaccine” and believed to be “much more reliable” by the Russian scientists.
Crude images depicting monkeys with captions such as “Monkey vaccine is fine” and similar memes have appeared on Russian state media two days after AstraZeneca announced the pause. On September 10, Russian state-news agency RIA Novosti published an editorial piece titled “Why the West is losing the vaccine race: Russia has been exposed,” which contained four caricatures on the monkey vaccine with English captions.
AstraZeneca has since resumed the trials in the UK. In the US, the FDA is considering whether to allow AstraZeneca to restart its trial after a participant became ill. At issue is whether the illness was a fluke, or if it may have been related to the vaccine.
The head of the Russian Direct Investment Fund, which sponsors the development of Sputnik V, said in September the company is “delighted” to see that the AstraZeneca trials are moving forward but called the approach “unacceptable” due to “excessive reliance upon new unverified technologies,” including the use of a monkey adenovirus vector or mRNA technology.
In July, however, the RDIF announced that one of its portfolio companies, drug maker R-Pharm, reached a deal with AstraZeneca to produce the Oxford vaccine in Russia. The announcement came after warnings that Russia-linked actors are attempting to hack UK, US and Canada-based research centers in order to gather intelligence on the vaccine production. Russia denied any involvement.
The head of the RDIF Kirill Dmitriev told Reuters at the time Moscow did not need to steal any secrets as it already had a deal with AstraZeneca to manufacture the potential British vaccine in Russia.
“The transfer of the cell line and the adenovirus vector to Russia has been carried out; it is planned to produce the antigen here and produce the finished doses,” R-Pharm said in a July statement. “At the same time, Russia will be one of the hubs for the production and supply of the vaccine to international markets.”
When asked Friday to comment whether AstraZeneca’s pause in trials and technology threatens the deal with a Russian producer, Dmitriev said: “One of our portfolio companies is manufacturing the AstraZeneca vaccine. We believe that both human adenoviral vector approach that Sputnik V is using, and chimpanzee adenoviral vector approach used by AstraZeneca are both very promising approaches based on solid scientific basis.”
Gamaleya is using adenoviruses in their Covid-19 vaccines; this is the same approach used in the vaccine developed by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca. The adenovirus delivers genetic material for the spike protein that sits atop the virus that causes Covid-19, and that genetic material is designed to generate an immune response to the virus.
Adenoviruses can cause a variety of symptoms, including the common cold. The researchers manipulate the virus so it will not replicate and cause illness.
The Gamaleya vaccine is given in two doses, and each dose uses a different adenovirus vector.
Russia registered its first coronavirus vaccine Sputnik V in August after testing it on 76 volunteers and ahead of large-scale Phase 3 trials. The announcement came to much fanfare from Russian state media but drew widespread skepticism from the international community concerning its safety and the notion the approval could’ve been rushed by political goals. Sputnik V is now in its stage 3 trial which so far involved 13,000 people and seeking to enroll up to 40,000, according to Russian officials.
AstraZeneca began large-scale phase 3 human clinical trials in August seeking to enroll up to 30,000. Such trials are the last step before a vaccine maker seeks approval from regulators.
Another vaccine EpiVacCorona developed by a former biochemical weapons lab Vector, was registered in Russia this week before going through Phase 3 trials. The third potential Russian vaccine, from the Chumakov Institute, began Phase I trials last week.
CNN’s Simon Cullen contributed reporting