Russia’s intelligence agencies have been working to undermine confidence in the development, safety and efficacy of two of the coronavirus vaccines being used in the US, The Wall Street Journal reported Sunday.
Citing conversations with US officials, the Journal said Russia is making use of online publications to wage the disinformation campaign, with one State Department official identifying four outlets that have “served as fronts” for the effort.
Though the newspaper noted that the outlets’ readership is small, the sites “played up the vaccines’ risk of side effects, questioned their efficacy, and said the US had rushed the Pfizer vaccine through the approval process, among other false or misleading claims.”
“We can say these outlets are directly linked to Russian intelligence services,” the State Department official told the Journal. “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 campaign comes as the US and other countries race to vaccinate people using three vaccines developed in record time by the drug makers Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson and Johnson. US officials have been working to increase confidence in the drugs in recent months as studies showed a concerning level of vaccine hesitancy among some people, though that has decreased as the rollout has progressed.
CNN has reached out to the State Department for comment.
A spokesman for the Kremlin denied to the Journal that the country’s intelligence services were spearheading the disinformation campaign.
“It’s nonsense. Russian special services have nothing to do with any criticism against vaccines,” the spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told the newspaper.
The Journal said that in addition to the campaign being waged through the four outlets, “Russian state media and Russian government Twitter accounts have made overt efforts to raise concerns about the cost and safety of the Pfizer vaccine in what experts outside the US government say is an effort to promote the sale of Russia’s rival Sputnik V vaccine.”
Social media accounts tied to the four outlets, however, have mostly been removed from leading platforms, the Journal said.
“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,” a forthcoming report by the Alliance for Securing Democracy says, according to the Journal.
Included among the disinformation campaign is News Front, a publication that used international reports to play “up the risk that a person who receives the Pfizer or Moderna Inc. vaccines could contract Bell’s palsy, in which facial muscles are paralyzed,” according to the Journal, which noted that while a small number of side effects have been reported by vaccine recipients, the shots are overwhelmingly safe and effective.
Pamela Eisele, a spokeswoman for Pfizer, told the newspaper that so far, “millions of people have been vaccinated with our vaccine following the endorsement of regulators in multiple countries.”
A spokeswoman for Moderna didn’t immediately respond to the Journal’s request for comment.