Those who study Russian state propaganda tactics and its use of social media aren’t surprised. “I would expect nothing less of the Sputnik vaccine manufacturers, frankly,” said Nina Jankowicz, an expert on disinformation at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
The account began tweeting in November, but messages turned more negative this week. In one message posted Thursday to Twitter, Sputnik V shared a link to a CNBC article with the headline: “You can’t sue Pfizer or Moderna if you have severe Covid vaccine side effects,” referring to two major U.S.-backed vaccines.
Officials in Alaska on Wednesday revealed that a health-care worker in that state had a serious allergic reaction after getting the new coronavirus vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech.
The day before, Sputnik V shared a link to an NBC News article about mRNA — the advanced technology used to create both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines — suggesting that its own technology was safer.
The account pondered the question of how Western media would respond to Sputnik V if it had caused “strong allergic reactions and had four cases of face paralysis in the vaccine arm of clinical trials?”
The concerns raised by the account have some basis in facts — in Britain and the United States, there have been several reports of health-care workers who had a severe allergic reaction after receiving the Pfizer injection.
A Food and Drug Administration review of the results of Pfizer’s Phase 3 trial of its vaccine also found that there were four cases of Bell’s palsy, a temporary paralysis of facial muscles, among those who received doses during the trial.
But experts say that side effects from vaccines are common and that an allergic reaction can be a sign that the vaccine is working. Pfizer has said that the number of cases of Bell’s palsy in the U.S. trial was not statistically significant — around 22,000 received the full doses of the vaccine — and FDA reviewers have said they do not think it was linked to the vaccine.
These explanations are unlikely to stop fringe theories on social media and conspiracy websites. But it is unusual for a vaccine manufacturer to publicly sow seeds of doubt about its rivals on social media.
The Twitter account is one of several social media accounts, most in English, that RDIF is using to promote the Sputnik V vaccine. An Instagram account has also shared images promoting the vaccine, including one of director Oliver Stone with a caption that says it was the “first Oscar winner to get vaccinated with Sputnik V.”
It is not clear precisely who runs the account, or what remit they are given. The account is run by the Sputnik V “team based in Moscow,” according to a direct message on Twitter. The account has a modest 10,000 followers so far.
Much of the social media use is not negative. After it was announced that Sputnik V developers would share data with pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca, the Twitter account suggested the medium had helped.
“The new chapter of vaccine cooperation has started today,” it announced. “We made an offer and AstraZeneca accepted it. It all happened here on Twitter!”
But Russia has used social media to promote its worldview frequently in recent years, with the Russian Embassy in London becoming notorious for tweets that often seemed designed to enrage and undermine the West.
Complaints about Russia’s much-lauded vaccine do appear to have gotten under people’s skin, too. Russia’s vaccine was registered without a Phase 3 trial, and some international experts have said that even though the science behind the vaccine looks sound, they could not back it without more public data.
As the vaccine was rolled out in Russia this month, there were some signs that even the Russian public was staying away from the vaccine, leaving vaccination centers empty and doses in their vials. The Russian government also began rolling out a separate vaccine, the EpiVacCorona, this week.
Kirill Dmitriev, the head of RDIF and an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has criticized other labs that used novel techniques like taking adenoviruses from monkeys or messenger RNA to build their vaccines. Sputnik V uses a more traditional method where different, harmless cold viruses, or human adenoviruses, were engineered so that they could carry a gene for the coronavirus.
Jankowicz said that she saw the provocative tweets as a sign of how fierce the public diplomacy effort was for all countries developing vaccines: 63 vaccine candidates are in human testing, with 18 at the final stages.
In the United States and Britain, President Trump and Prime Minister Boris Johnson have loudly proclaimed their success in developing and rolling out vaccines. But both China and Russia also have rolled out vaccines at remarkable speed, despite concerns about transparency and safety.
“The responsible thing to do would be to communicate about vaccines without a hint of propaganda, but everyone — especially countries like China and Russia, eager to be seen as ‘the good guys’ for once — is keen to cash in on this positive PR opportunity,” Jankowicz said.
The problem may be that this competition could undermine vaccine deployment. “Let’s hope it doesn’t cost lives,” Jankowicz added.