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Pro-Kremlin sites try to undermine the European medicines regulator
A cursory scan of articles about Covid-19 on pro-Kremlin news websites reveals an array of misleading narratives about vaccines. Many of the headlines, whether fuelling unfounded suspicion about Western-made jabs or criticising other countries’ vaccination drives, are by now no longer surprising.
But in recent weeks a more complicated story has been gathering steam. Certain Russian websites appear to be trying to undermine the authority of European regulators currently evaluating the country’s own Sputnik V vaccine.
What is the EMA?
The European Medicines Agency (EMA) reviews scientific evidence before issuing guidance as to whether medicines, including vaccines, are safe and effective.
Member states can still purchase medicines before the agency has made a recommendation. Hungary, for instance, has already started distributing Sputnik V to its population. But a cross-EU effort is underway to provide jabs for countries throughout the bloc and this requires the EMA’s stamp of approval.
As of May, the EMA has issued positive guidance for four Covid-19 vaccines: the Pfizer-BioNTech, Oxford-AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson and Moderna vaccines.
It has been evaluating the Sputnik V vaccine since early March, after Russian scientists published evidence about its efficacy from clinical trials in February. So far, the EMA has not yet issued a formal recommendation as to whether or not Sputnik V should be used in the EU.
Regulators can take months to properly review this kind of evidence, so guidance on whether or not to authorise the drug may still be some way off. But in the meantime, some Russian news outlets are using confusion around this process to portray the agency in a negative light.
Unfounded accusations of delays
It’s no secret that pro-Kremlin websites have spread disinformation about Western vaccines for months, likely in an effort to make the Sputnik V shot seem more appealing.
As the major drugs regulatory body for the EU, the EMA has now become a major focus of pro-Kremlin disinformation. A search of the European External Action Service’s EUvsDisinfo database reveals several articles baselessly accusing the EMA of delaying its review into Sputnik V or of evaluating it improperly.
A recent report by the service found confusion over the timing of this review has been exploited to amplify this narrative. Since February 9, certain outlets have claimed an application for the review was made in January – on January 22 or 29, depending on the source.
On February 10, however, the EMA confirmed it had not received a formal application, but had only been in contact with Sputnik’s developers over the data required for such a submission.
The official Sputnik V promotional Twitter account responded by publishing what appeared to be a screenshot of an application portal showing a submission had been made:
But according to a report by the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, this portal has not been used for EMA submissions since 2015.
In early March, the EMA confirmed it had commenced a rolling review into the vaccine. But confusion over the date has fuelled distrust in the agency in some quarters.
Pro-Russian state outlets also regularly accuse the EMA of “politicizing” vaccines; warping statements from EU officials to fit this narrative.
This article baselessly accused EMA head Emer Cooke of wanting to ban Sputnik V because of lobbying by drug companies and because of systemic anti-Russian sentiment in Europe.
In fact, Cooke had told a EU committee on Tuesday 23 March 2021 that she actually hoped the vaccine would be approved. She said: “We do hope this will be a valuable vaccine to add to the vaccines that were [earlier made] available to the European population.”
Some articles have gone further still in their attempts to antagonise the EMA. The below article, for example, accuses “the West” of waging its own information war against the Russian vaccine. It also claims, without evidence, that the highly safe and effective Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is “risky.”
Why attack the regulator?
The EEAS suggests these attacks on the EU, and the EMA in particular, are an attempt to undermine the bloc’s efforts to secure vaccines for use across its member states.
As the BBC notes, Russia has been able to play on vaccine-related tensions that are already emerging in some EU countries.
Earlier this year, for example, Slovakia purchased a batch of Sputnik V doses it then claimed had differed from the samples sent to other countries. Russia denied this, and quickly demanded the shots be returned. Hungary, meanwhile, stepped in to approve the jabs on its neighbour’s behalf.
Meanwhile, officials in Germany have said they would consider buying Sputnik V doses outside of the EU’s unified procurement strategy, so long as it receives EMA approval.
Pierre Vimont of Carnegie told the UK broadcaster: “I’m sure [the Russians] are enjoying this. Let’s not be fooled. The use of vaccines by Russia… is a diplomatic instrument, a tool for soft power. Playing [EU] member states off against each other is naturally important to Russia.”
European Commission spokesperson Peter Stano told Health Studio that he believes this anti-EMA disinformation is part of a wider effort to sow distrust in the democratic process and rule of law in the Western world.
“It also seeks to create as much chaos and confusion as possible,” he said, “often by applying contradictory narratives and different techniques to approach various audiences.”
Stano added that the pandemic was fertile ground for disinformation, as it affects everyone’s lives to some extent. “[This] makes the audience more vulnerable, hence more prone to disinformation narratives and conspiracy theories.”