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Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a meeting of the Federal Security Service board Feb. 24, 2021, in Moscow. (AP) Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a meeting of the Federal Security Service board Feb. 24, 2021, in Moscow. (AP)

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a meeting of the Federal Security Service board Feb. 24, 2021, in Moscow. (AP)

Noah Y. Kim
By Noah Y. Kim March 9, 2021

If Your Time is short

  • The U.S. State Department says it has identified four online publications used by Russian intelligence services to spread disinformation about Western COVID-19 vaccines.

  • Many of these sites have published articles that exaggerate safety concerns about Western vaccines. Some of their claims resemble others we have debunked. ​

Russian intelligence services have used online publications to spread disinformation that undermines public confidence in Western COVID-19 vaccines, according to the U.S. State Department.

The Wall Street Journal reported that four online platforms have served as fronts for Russian intelligence groups. These sites have all frequently published misleading articles that exaggerate the safety risks of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines and downplay their efficacy. 

A State Department spokesperson confirmed to PolitiFact that it has identified four publications directed by Russian intelligence services: News Front, New Eastern Outlook, Oriental Review and Rebel Inside. The first three sites have frequently spread disinformation about the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, while Rebel Inside largely ceased publishing material a year ago.  

Why would Russia want to denigrate Western vaccines? It’s unclear, but one theory is that the Russian government sees them as a threat to the Sputnik V vaccine, which was developed in Russia and began rolling out there in December 2020. Many of the platforms identified as Russia-backed have published positive articles about Sputnik V. Many smaller countries around the world will be comparing vaccines as they decide what to buy for their own populations. 

The Pfizer vaccine, which has received the most negative coverage from these publications, was the first Western vaccine to be approved.

On Mar. 8, the Biden administration acknowledged the Wall Street Journal report and announced that it was attempting to combat Russian disinformation about the vaccines. 

"We will fight, with every tool we have, disinformation … and we will reiterate that at every opportunity these vaccines are safe," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said during a Mar. 8 press briefing.

The Alliance for Security Democracy, a nonpartisan think tank that analyzes disinformation campaigns by foreign governments, studied 35,000 vaccine-related claims from officials and state media outlets from three governments, including Russia. Its analysis, published on Mar. 6, found that Russia frequently suggested links between the Pfizer vaccine and the deaths of vaccine recipients. 

"While there were few instances of any studied country promoting verifiably false information about vaccines, reports of safety concerns related to the administration of certain Western-produced vaccines were often sensationalized while downplaying or completely omitting key contextual information," the report says. 

Many of the claims pushed by these state-backed news outlets resemble those we have debunked in the past. Here are five claims pushed by the online publications cited by the State Department and the Wall Street Journal, fact-checked: 

Claim: There is a "causal connection" between vaccines and the death of recipients

Mostly False. Although some people have died after receiving COVID-19 vaccines, that doesn’t prove that the vaccines caused those deaths.

"When you are vaccinating millions and millions of people, some will develop bad illnesses and death simply by chance," said Dr. Walter Orenstein, associate director of the Emory Vaccine Center. "These would be illnesses and deaths that would have occurred anyway at that time even if the person was not vaccinated."

To establish causation, experts look beyond isolated data points to studies of large groups of people to see if a negative symptom or event is more prominent in vaccinated people than in non-vaccinated ones. 

The Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines have been subjected to these types of studies for months and have been proved safe and effective in tens of thousands of people.

New Eastern Outlook: "The (Pfizer) vaccine is being rushed through to eventual approval in an alarmingly short time."

Mostly False. Although the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines were developed in record time, there are several reasons for that, including the fact that scientists had previously worked on vaccines for similar coronaviruses, and funding agencies poured billions of dollars into COVID-19 vaccine research.

Both vaccines received emergency-use authorizations from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The standard of scientific proof for emergency-use authorization is different from an ordinary FDA approval. For emergency authorization, "the totality of scientific evidence" must make it "reasonable to believe that the product may be effective." For official approval, vaccines must demonstrate "substantial evidence" of efficacy and proof of safety.

But vaccines that are granted an emergency-use authorization still go through a rigorous review process, including all phases of clinical trials.

News Front: "The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines cause Bell’s palsy."

This is unproven. During clinical trials to test the safety and efficacy of the Pfizer vaccine, four people out of 22,000 in the vaccinated group developed Bell’s palsy, about 0.02% of participants. 

This is consistent with the expected rate in the general population, and it’s not a strong enough correlation to prove any causal connection between the vaccine and the condition. 

Many vaccine studies unearth correlations that end up not being causally related to the vaccine, said Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

"It’s the problem with taking small numbers out of a large database," he said. 

New Eastern Outlook: The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are "explicitly experimental" and "untested."

This is False. The first two coronavirus vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna use new technology, called messenger RNA, to combat the disease. But that does not mean that safety protocols were bypassed or that researchers didn’t do enough testing. For example, the Pfizer vaccine was studied in clinical trials involving about 44,000 people, with half receiving the vaccine, and the other half receiving a placebo.

It’s also misleading to call the vaccines "experimental." The research behind the new vaccine technology has been underway for some time. 

"It's not a novel strategy," said Offit. "This particular notion of using messenger RNA in a vaccine has been around for 20 years. This is just the first product to get above the water to become a commercial project."

Oriental Review: Bill Gates is using vaccines to inject the population with tracking chips.

This is False. We fact-checked a claim that Gates is spending billions to ensure that medical injections and other medical procedures include microchips, and we found nothing to support it. The Microsoft co-founder and his foundation have been frequent targets of COVID-19 and vaccine misinformation.

Dr. Wilbur Chen, an infectious disease scientist at the University of Maryland’s Center for Vaccine Development and Global Health, previously told PolitiFact that injecting someone with a vaccine containing a small radio-frequency identification technology chip is preposterous.  

"Even the smallest version of RFID chips are rather large that none would ever fit into a vaccine needle — these are very small-bore needles," he said. "The RFID chips that are routinely used for the tracking of pets are as small as a grain of rice … or in other words, they are as large as a grain of rice, and no vaccine needles in use are that large in diameter."

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Our Sources

Wall Street Journal, Russian disinformation campaign aims to undermine confidence in Pfizer, other Covid-19 vaccines, U.S. officials say, Mar. 7, 2021

Alliance for Securing Democracy, Influence-enza: How Russia, China, and Iran have shaped and manipulated coronavirus vaccine  narratives, Mar. 6, 2021

Radio Free Europe, Sputnik V: The story of Russia’s controversial COVID-19 vaccine, Mar. 4, 2021

PolitiFact, No, the Gates Foundation isn’t pushing microchips with all medical procedures, May 20, 2020

PolitiFact, COVID-19 vaccines don’t use experimental technology, don’t track humans, Jan. 4, 2021

PolitiFact, No, the US isn’t developing a vaccine or ‘antivirus’ with a chip to track people, Apr. 3, 2020

PolitiFact, Alternative health website spreads false claim about COVID-19 vaccine side effects, Dec. 9, 2020

PolitiFact, Why you shouldn’t worry about getting Bell’s Palsy from the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, Dec. 11, 2020

PolitiFact, "8 facts and 4 unknowns about the coronavirus vaccines," Dec. 17, 2020

PolitiFact, "No, chip on COVID-19 vaccine syringes would not be injected or track people," Dec. 15, 2020

Food and Drug Administration, "Emergency Use Authorization of Medical Products and Related Authorities"

Food and Drug Administration, "Emergency Use Authorization for Vaccines Explained

Food and Drug Administration, "Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee December 10, 2020 Meeting Announcement"

Food and Drug Administration, "Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee Meeting"

Food and Drug Administration, "Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee October 22, 2020 Meeting Announcement"

Food and Drug Administration, "Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee October 22, 2020 Meeting Presentation"

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