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Russia trying to undermine confidence in COVID-19 vaccines: report

Russia trying to undermine confidence in COVID-19 vaccines: report
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Russian intelligence agencies are waging a disinformation campaign to undermine the public’s trust in western COVID-19 vaccines, according to a State Department official.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the official, from the State Department’s Global Engagement Center (GEC),  identified four small online publications that are spreading false and misleading claims by playing up the vaccines' side effects, questioning their efficacy and claiming that the U.S. had rushed the development of the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine.

The official said he believes the websites are fronts for Russian intelligence, and their false narratives are being amplified by Russian and international media, the Journal reports.

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“We can say these outlets are directly linked to Russian intelligence services,” the GEC official told the newspaper. “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.”

According to the official, New Eastern Outlook and Oriental Review are directly controlled by the Russian foreign intelligence agency SVR. Another online publication, News Front, is allegedly guided by Russia's FSB and has ties to Kremlin funding. Rebel Inside, an online publication that covers riots, is controlled by the Russian Armed Forces General Staff, according to the GEC official.

“Russian intelligence services bear direct responsibility for using these four platforms to spread propaganda and lies,” a State department spokesperson told the Journal. “From the very beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, we have seen Russia’s disinformation ecosystem develop and spread false narratives around the crisis.”

The Journal notes that Russian government Twitter accounts have also tried to raise concerns regarding the Pfizer vaccine. Experts from outside the U.S. government have said that this effort is being made in order to promote the sale of Russia's Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine.

State Department Spokesperson Ned Price confirmed the Journal's reporting during a press briefing on Monday.

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"These sites have in fact included disinformation about two of the vaccines that have now been approved ... in this country," Price said

"It is very clear that Russia is up to its old tricks and in doing so is potentially putting people at risk by spreading disinformation about vaccines that we know to be saving lives every day," Price said. "The Global Engagement Center, other entities here, is focused on countering disinformation and propaganda globally, not only in the Russian context, but of course the Russians have been engaged in this effort for some time now."

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov denied the allegations, however, claiming U.S. officials were mischaracterizing international vaccine debate as a Russian intelligence plot.

“It’s nonsense. Russian special services have nothing to do with any criticism against vaccines,” Peskov told the Journal. “If we treat every negative publication against the Sputnik V vaccine as a result of efforts by American special services, then we will go crazy because we see it every day, every hour and in every Anglo-Saxon media.”

--Updated at 4:00 p.m.