US says Russia spreading vaccine ‘disinformation’; Kremlin calls claim ‘absurd’

‘Very clear that Russia is up to its old tricks,’ State Department monitor says, accusing Moscow of being behind 4 online platforms involved in anti-vaccination campaign

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting via video conference in Moscow, Russia, December 23, 2020. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting via video conference in Moscow, Russia, December 23, 2020. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

The United States on Monday denounced what it called a Russian disinformation campaign against US-made COVID-19 vaccines, saying Moscow was putting lives at risk.

Hitting back at the allegations, Moscow called the claims “absurd and groundless.”

The Global Engagement Center, an arm of the US State Department whose activities include monitoring foreign propaganda, said that Russian intelligence was behind four online platforms involved in an anti-vaccination campaign.

The sites have “included disinformation about two of the vaccines that have now been approved by the FDA in this country,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters, referring to the US Food and Drug Administration.

“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,” Price said.

US State Department Spokesman Ned Price speaks to reporters during a news briefing at the State Department in Washington, on Monday, March 1, 2021. (Tom Brenner/Pool via AP)

The Wall Street Journal first reported on the Global Engagement Center’s findings, which included a claim that the websites played up risks of the US-made Pfizer vaccine in an apparent bid to boost Russia’s homegrown Sputnik V.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov rejected the allegations, saying that Russia had no role in spreading disinformation about COVID-19 vaccines.

“Russia has never taken part and is not going to take part in such information campaigns against other vaccines,” Peskov told reporters Tuesday.

On the contrary, he said, Russia was cooperating with foreign vaccine producers “to make a more effective product.”

“We’ve always been against politicizing any issues related to the vaccine in any way,” he said.

Peskov added that once shots are tested and approved, “they should be produced as much as possible to save the entire world from the coronavirus and save as many human lives as possible.”

Putin has boasted that Russia has developed the world’s best vaccines against the coronavirus, insisting last week they were better than the Pfizer and AstraZeneca inoculations.

A nurse holds up the Sputnik V vaccine for COVID-19 at the National Hospital as vaccinations start in Itaugua, Paraguay, February 22, 2021. (Jorge Saenz/AP)

In an assessment provided last year to AFP, 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 including by spreading allegations of US involvement.

The center found that China briefly made a similar effort but ultimately decided it made more traction by highlighting Beijing’s own efforts.

US intelligence has long suspected Russia in disinformation campaigns on health, including spreading the myth in the 1980s that US scientists created the HIV virus that causes AIDS.

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