After working 24/7 to develop a COVID-19 vaccine in a historic timeframe and scale up manufacturing at an unprecedented rate, some vaccine manufacturers are now facing what appears to be a concerted Russian misinformation campaign akin to those used in the last two U.S. presidential campaigns, as well as in Great Britain and possibly in France.

The campaign, allegedly engineered by the Russian group that was behind the political misinformation, is disparaging vaccines developed in the West while promoting Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine in Spanish-speaking countries, Jeremy Levin, chair of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization’s (BIO) executive committee, told BioWorld.

“The behavior of Russian secret service in attempting to undermine the validity of other vaccines in favor of Sputnik V is a very dangerous precedent,” he said. Establishing doubt about the validity of vaccines that have undergone rigorous development could lead to people delaying or not getting vaccinations, which would create greater opportunity for more aggressive variants of the coronavirus to develop.

Being played out in social media, including Twitter and Facebook, the campaign focuses on what Levin called “spurious evidence” of the side effects and efficacy of U.S.-developed vaccines. It also claims, with no context, that Sputnik V is cheaper and easier to transport, while suggesting the other vaccines may be linked to deaths.

Levin advised the makers of other COVID-19 vaccines not to attempt to dispute the allegations. Instead, he said, “they should be focused only on the science and medicine and facts.” That includes transparency in submitting the full data from developing the vaccines so regulators can be confident that the data and science are “completely sound and the approvals based on rock hard science and evidence,” Levin said.

To help build public confidence in the COVID-19 vaccines they authorize, the EMA, FDA and regulators in Australia, Canada and several other countries are publicly releasing the full data package for each vaccine. While those data haven’t been available for Sputnik V, they will be soon, now that the EMA has begun a rolling review of the Russian vaccine. If Sputnik meets the EMA’s standards, “we will be delighted that we have another arrow in the quiver,” Levin said.

What’s behind the campaign

The intent behind the vaccine misinformation campaign is unknown, Levin said, noting that it could be purely commercial or it could be political.

What is known is that it’s being run by the same Russian political organ that undermined elections in the West. “That is an extraordinary use of a state arm to not just undermine public confidence but to undermine public confidence in a particular segment,” Levin said. If the purpose is political, the misinformation campaign raises questions of national security.

The result could be a welding of the political, medical and policy sectors aimed at fragmenting the international cooperation required to defeat the pandemic. Public distrust of medical products approved by the FDA, the EMA and other regulators with robust, science-driven standards would undermine the regulators’ ability to be effective global partners and unnecessarily add to the tension between countries, Levin said.

“We can’t allow this to become a political issue,” he said. “I think [the campaign] needs to be taken very seriously.” He added that if Russia sees the vaccine misinformation campaign as successful, “it will lay a route map for Russia to use [these tools] again.”

Then “this becomes an ‘open, Sesame’ – not just on medicines but on products” deemed as competitors to Russian drugs and devices, Levin warned.

To date, 50 countries from Latin America to Asia have ordered 1.2 billion doses of the Russian vaccine. With Russian plants reportedly manufacturing the Sputnik V vaccine only for the domestic market, the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) is thought to have signed contracts with 15 manufacturers in 10 countries – including Brazil, China, India, Iran, Serbia and South Korea – to produce 1.4 billion doses of the vaccine for use outside of Russia, Levin said.

It isn’t clear how much of that production is “nailed down and running smoothly,” he added.

While the EU, U.S. and other wealthy countries are contributing vaccine doses to COVAX to ensure lower-income countries get the vaccine, Levin pointed out that RDIF CEO Kirill Dmitriev recently said COVAX would be a small part of the Sputnik portfolio, as the RDIF plans to work directly with countries that need the vaccine.