World increasingly wary of COVID-19 disinformation from Russia, China

By Pakistan Forward and AFP


A worker handles boxes of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine before stockpiling them in refrigerated units inside the Libyan health ministry in Tripoli on April 4. [Mahmud TURKIA / AFP]

BRUSSELS -- Russia and China are more intent on scoring points in a geopolitical game by spreading disinformation and lies rather than bringing the global coronavirus pandemic under control for the betterment of all, analysts say.

Moscow and Beijing have stepped up "state-sponsored disinformation" campaigns denigrating Western-developed vaccines against COVID-19 while promoting their own, the European Union (EU) said Wednesday (April 28).

"The so-called 'vaccine diplomacy' follows a zero-sum game logic" that seeks to "undermine trust in Western-made vaccines, EU institutions and Western/European vaccination strategies", said a report from the EU's foreign service, the European External Action Service (EEAS).

Since December, Russian media, authorities and state companies have united behind pushing the Sputnik V vaccine while using "antagonistic messaging" to accuse the EU of "sabotaging" the Russian jab, the report said.


A medical staff member prepares a COVID-19 vaccine dose for a student at a university in Wuhan, China, on April 28. [STR/AFP]


China's President Xi Jinping (left) and Russia's President Vladimir Putin attend a meeting during the BRICS Summit in Brasilia on November 14, 2019. [Pavel Golovkin/Pool/AFP]

"Pro-Kremlin media outlets, including the official Sputnik V Twitter account, have sought to undermine public trust in the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and cast doubt on its procedures and political impartiality."

State-backed media have tried to "sow confusion" over an application for marketing approval by the Russian Sputnik V vaccine in a bid to fuel the narrative that the body deliberately delayed giving the green light, the report said.

"Pro-Kremlin outlets have also accused the EMA and the EU in general of political bias against the Russian-made vaccine," it added.

Russia is betting on a geopolitical boost from the pandemic, the Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service said in a February report.

"The Kremlin believes that the pandemic will accelerate two trends that Russia itself is working to promote: a transition towards multipolarity in international relations and declining Western influence on the global stage," it said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin expects "the global epidemic [to] force the West to focus on domestic policy and economic problems, cause populist and extremist movements to emerge, and ultimately undermine the values-based and institutional unity of Western societies".

"Russia is prepared to add fuel to the flames to encourage these trends," it added.

Quality control problems

The Kremlin's willingness to mislead has been seen in the global race to find a vaccine effective against COVID-19.

The Russian regime unleashed a massive propaganda campaign to promote its Sputnik V vaccine, in tandem with campaigns smearing Western-made vaccines.

But rushing to be "first" has come at the expense of quality control, global health analysts say.

Earlier this week, Brazil's drug regulator Anvisa decided to stop the import of Sputnik V on the basis that tested batches carried a live version of a common cold-causing virus.

On Monday it denied a request from several states in the northeast of the country to acquire more than 30 million doses of the Sputnik V vaccine.

The issue centres around an "adenovirus vector" -- a virus that normally causes mild respiratory illness but in vaccines is genetically modified so that it cannot replicate and is edited to carry the DNA instructions for human cells to develop the spike protein of the coronavirus.

This process in turn trains the human system to be prepared in case it then encounters the real coronavirus.

According to a slideshow uploaded online, scientists at Anvisa said they tested samples of the booster shot and found it was "replication competent" -- meaning that once inside the body, the adenovirus can continue to multiply.

The finding "raises questions about the integrity of the manufacturing processes" and could be a safety issue for recipients with weaker immune systems, top virologist Dr. Angela Rasmussen, a research scientist at Canada's Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organisation, told AFP.

Another unknown is whether the manufacturing problem that led to the adenovirus vector being able to replicate also knocks out the DNA code for the spike protein -- rendering the shot ineffective as a coronavirus vaccine.

Russia's Gamaleya Institute, which developed the vaccine, has denied the reports.

But it is not the first time such an issue has occurred.

Earlier this month, Slovakia also said it had concerns over the composition of Sputnik V vaccines it had imported, saying they did not match the samples that were used in clinical studies.

"This sort of thing calls into question the entire manufacturing and quality control process, and I can see why the Brazilian regulators are concerned," American chemist Derek Lowe wrote in a blog post for Science Magazine.

The response from Sputnik V's makers was irresponsible, he said.

Rather than addressing the concerns with transparency and working to find a solution, the Kremlin's stance is to deny and deflect blame.

China targeting 'developing countries'

Beijing meanwhile is promoting its vaccines as "more suitable for developing countries", while deploying "misleading narratives" about the safety of Western vaccines and even on the origin of the coronavirus, the EU report said.

China is exporting its COVID-19 vaccines to 27 countries and providing free "vaccine aid" to 53 countries in need, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said in late February.

But all four of China's conditionally approved vaccines have published efficacy rates much lower than rival jabs by Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and even Sputnik V.

Earlier this month, Gao Fu, director of the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, admitted that the agency was "considering how to solve the problem that the efficacy of existing vaccines is not high", local media reported.

He said the current vaccines, including doses from Sinovac and Sinopharm, "don't have very high rates of protection", the BBC reported.

The development of COVID-19 vaccines has been one of the ways Beijing has tried to mask its irresponsible handling of the COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent disinformation campaigns.

Beijing's exports of faulty COVID-19 test kits, shoddy ventilators and phony masks and other personal protective equipment serve as another warning.

In Pakistan, many healthcare workers say they are sceptical Chinese-made vaccines are effective and safe.

Half of all health workers across the country had concerns over the Sinopharm vaccine and would rather be offered jabs from AstraZeneca or Pfizer, according to a survey conducted last month by Gallup Pakistan and the Pakistan Islamic Medical Association, a doctors' rights body.

"There is no hesitancy among the healthcare workers for getting a COVID vaccine," said Javed Hussain, a leader of the Nurses Association in Karachi. "Any hesitation is due to the efficacy and safety of the Chinese-made vaccine."

"There is a common perception among Pakistan healthcare workers that China has been testing low-quality COVID vaccines on them after donating them to the Pakistani government," said Salman Afridi, a nurse in Peshawar.

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