The maker of Russia’s Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine has spent this week tweeting out a series of false or misleading statements about the shot’s efficacy and use across the globe. Then on Thursday it announced it was suing Brazil for defamation.
This sentence might seem like the punchline to a joke, but unfortunately this all happened after Brazil, which is in the middle of a devastating second wave of COVID-19 and badly in need of vaccines, announced it was denying requests from states in the northeast of the country and the federal government to import the Russian vaccine.
Brazil’s health regulator, Anvisa, said it made the decision because of a lack of safety and efficacy data.
But that didn’t go down too well with the vaccine maker’s official Twitter account, which spent the next few days spreading a variety of misleading data about the popularity and efficacy of Sputnik V.
First, on Tuesday, it accused Brazil, which had agreed to buy some 47 million doses, of politicizing the issue, claiming without evidence that Washington was behind the decision to stop the imports.
This claim comes from the revelation in a report from the Department of Health and Human Services in January that revealed that under former President Donald Trump, government officials lobbied Brazil to reject Sputnik V. But that lobbying effort didn’t work and Brazil has ordered tens of millions of doses of the vaccine.
Next, the Sputnik V account tweeted that it “ranks as the second most widespread vaccine in the world, authorized in 62 countries of 3.2 billion people.” As Yevgeny Kuklychev from fact-checking group First Draft pointed out, the tweet linked to a table that did not include data on the number of shots of any vaccine administered globally and cited “public sources” but offered no specifics. The tweet has been shared over 2,000 times.
It continued its use of questionable data by claiming in another tweet that Sputnik V was the safest and most efficacious COVID-19 vaccine on the market, citing data from a Hungarian government study.
The tweet has been shared over 1,500 times, but serious doubts have been raised about the study’s data, including by the Hungarian Medical Chamber, which requested access to the raw data, saying that published numbers were “not suitable for determining the efficacy differences of various vaccines.”
The Sputnik account continued to share disinformation throughout the week, claiming that Anvisa’s concerns were “fake news” and ultimately on Thursday it said that it was planning to sue the regulator.
“Following the admission of Brazilian regulator Anvisa that it did not test Sputnik V vaccine, Sputnik V is undertaking a legal defamation proceeding in Brazil against Anvisa for knowingly spreading false and inaccurate information," the Sputnik V tweet said.
The timing of Russia’s stream of false information about its own vaccine, when countries like Brazil and India are struggling to cope with skyrocketing COVID-19 infections and deaths, shows it is willing to leverage the current crisis in developing countries to push sales of its own vaccine—and it’s using misinformation to do so.
Initially, it appeared as if Russia’s vaccine would be a boon to efforts to vaccinate the world, with a study in The Lancet showing it was safe and more than 90% effective.
But it appears that the manufacturing process may be producing batches of the vaccine that are not as safe as those used in initial testing.
The issue is related to the "adenovirus vector," the same technology used in the AstraZeneca and the Johnson & Johnson vaccines. This virus normally causes a mild respiratory infection in humans, but in vaccines has been genetically modified so it can’t replicate.
However, according to Anvisa, their tests of the second or booster dose of the Sputnik V vaccine contained “replication competent” versions of the adenovirus. While this would not be a major issue for most people, it could lead to serious illness for those who were immunocompromised.
Russia's Gamaleya Institute, which developed the vaccine, has denied the reports.
But virologist Angela Rasmussen told AFP that Brazil’s finding “raises questions about the integrity of the manufacturing processes” and could be a safety issue for people with weaker immune systems if the problem were found to be widespread.
“I can imagine that some people might have their reservations about getting that vaccine at all,” Rasmussen said.
But this week’s effort to spread disinformation about the safety, popularity and efficacy of a state-backed vaccine is not an isolated incident.
A report published Thursday by the EU’s External Action Service (EEAS) warned that between December 2020 and April 2021, Russian and Chinese state-sponsored disinformation campaigns targeting Western-developed COVID-19 vaccines have intensified.
“Russia and China, in particular, continue to intensively promote their own state-produced vaccines around the world. The so-called ‘vaccine diplomacy’ follows a zero-sum game logic and is combined with disinformation and manipulation efforts to undermine trust in Western-made vaccines, EU institutions and Western/European vaccination strategies,” the report’s author said.