Russian disinformation effort: Oxford’s COVID-19 vaccine turns people into monkeys
Russia is going bananas in its efforts to undermine a coronavirus vaccine being developed by Britain’s Oxford University — claiming it could turn people into monkeys, according to a report.
Videos, images and memes created in Russia have flooded social media to discredit the vaccine — set to be distributed by pharma giant Astrazeneca — by claiming it uses a chimpanzee virus as a vector, The Times of the UK reported.
The disinformation campaign has targeted Western nations and countries where Russia plans to sell its controversial COVID-19 vaccine, Sputnik-V, which critics have expressed concerns about after Moscow fast-tracked it before phase 3 human trials, according to the paper’s investigation.
Russia’s efforts could damage not just the Oxford program but also throw a monkey wrench into the wider global effort to protect against the deadly bug by encouraging conspiracy theorists and the anti-vaxxers, The Times reported.
“Misinformation is a clear risk to public health,” Astrazeneca chief Pascal Soriot told the outlet. “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.”
A UK government source denounced the “reckless and contemptible behavior” by those behind the effort, which “could lead to real damage to people’s health.”
The source added: “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.”
The Times said it obtained the simian handiwork from someone involved in the disinformation campaign who was worried about its impact on public health efforts.
The whistleblower told the outlet that a top aim was to place the memes on Western websites and in countries such as India and Brazil, where Russia is trying to market Sputnik-V.
Although it was unclear whether the Kremlin directly authorized the effort, there is evidence that some Russian officials have been involved in its organization and dissemination, the paper reported.
But Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Tugendhat said he had no doubt that the Russian state was behind the campaign.
“It always is. Russia is a very centralized state and the idea this would be done without the approval of someone in the inner circle is laughable,” he told Times Radio.
Ken McCallum, head of the UK’s MI5 Security Service, said this week that his agency was involved in protecting British vaccine research from attacks.
“The global prize of having the first usable vaccine is a large one,” he added.
The disinformation campaign also was geared toward Russian state media outlets, including Moscow’s Vesti News program, where some of the images appeared last month, The Times reported.
The effort’s messaging echoes statements from top Kremlin officials describing a “monkey vaccine” — contrasting it with the Russian inoculation derived from a human adenovirus.
People are already expressing hesitation about getting jabbed when the new vaccines are rolled out.
In August, research by King’s College London and Ipsos Mori found that one in six respondents in a poll said they would definitely not or would be unlikely to get a shot.
And a new US poll found that only 70 percent of the respondents were willing to be vaccinated — and about half wanted to wait until they were sure the vaccines were safe, The Times reported.
A Russian embassy rep told the paper: “The suggestion that the Russian state may conduct any kind of propaganda against the Astrazeneca vaccine is itself an example of disinformation.
“It is obviously aimed at discrediting Russia’s efforts in combating the pandemic, including the good co-operation we have established with the UK in this field.”
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