Beach Gray, PhD, is a Senior Open Source Analyst at Novetta, specializing in Russian disinformation and media influence.
Neil Edwards is an Open Source African Media Analyst at Novetta.
On December 3, a vaccine produced by Pfizer, BNT162, became the first COVID-19 vaccine to receive authorization in the United Kingdom for distribution. The United States is conducting its own internal review before granting emergency authorization. However, even if the vaccine receives authorization in the United States and elsewhere, questions remain over the public's willingness to be inoculated. Surprisingly, in Africa, perceptions of Russia’s flagship vaccine, Sputnik V, are largely positive, despite it having not undergone the rigorous clinical trials that other vaccines have.
In Africa, public opinion is often difficult to measure, whether due to conflict, undemocratic regimes, or a lack of administrative capacity. To work around these challenges, Novetta collects and curates traditional and social media data from fifty-four African countries. Novetta’s Rumor Tracking Program (RTP) was developed specifically to track misinformation and disinformation associated with COVID-19 and vaccines in development.
The RTP reveals that the Pfizer vaccine, compared to other vaccines in phase III clinical trials, has maintained the highest rate of positive press and social media coverage across Africa since April: 52 percent of extracted quotes from traditional and social media were favorable to the Pfizer vaccine. The positive public perception of the Pfizer vaccine was largely driven by the uptick in discussion on November 9—the day Pfizer announced its early findings—suggesting that the vaccine could be more than 90 percent effective. Recent news of the Moderna vaccine’s effectiveness resulted in a similar surge of positive sentiment in African media.
Curiously, in early November—before Pfizer’s announcement—Russia’s Sputnik V was the vaccine with the second-highest proportion of positive quotes about vaccine development. From the day Russia first announced its vaccine on August 11 to Pfizer’s announcement of its own vaccine’s efficacy on November 9, African media coverage of Sputnik V was largely positive (56 percent). After Pfizer, Moderna, and Oxford-AstraZeneca released their clinical trials' findings, these vaccines surpassed Sputnik V in positive media perception. However, the Sputnik V vaccine remains the most discussed vaccine in African media and boasts the second-lowest negative perception (11 percent).
A subset of the RTP concerns just media coverage of clinical trials. Despite Sputnik V’s questionable efficacy—early trials included only seventy-six participants in two hospitals—the vaccine had the second-highest rate of positive quotes (66 percent) in African media coverage specifically about clinical trials as of December 4, trailing only the Moderna vaccine (87 percent) in positive media coverage. Rates of positive clinical trial coverage of potential vaccines from Johnson & Johnson (62 percent), Pfizer (52 percent), and Oxford University (35 percent) were all lower than Sputnik V—despite undergoing far more rigorous clinical trials. Non-Russian media’s support for the Sputnik V vaccine and its clinical trials originates in large part from a targeted Russian disinformation campaign in countries with former and current ties to Russia and the Soviet Union.
Sputnik V seems to be as much about public relations and Russian soft power as about stopping the spread of COVID-19. Kirill Dmitriev, chief executive officer of Russia’s Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), the state-run sovereign wealth fund, explained the vaccine’s name choice, stating “we understood that there would be lots of skepticism and resistance to the Russian vaccine for competitive reasons; therefore, there was a decision to call it a Russian recognizable international name.” (The name Sputnik is a reference to the first satellite launched into space.)
The disinformation campaign started on August 11, when the Russian Ministry of Health approved Sputnik V as the world’s first vaccine against COVID-19. The approval itself was, by scientific standards, misleading, since the vaccine had not begun phase III clinical trials. However, Russia’s Ministry of Health doubled down on September 4, claiming it had manufactured the “best vaccine in the world” against COVID-19. President Vladimir Putin made a similar claim during West Africa’s Ebola outbreak, stating that Russia had invented a more effective treatment than any other available globally.
To shape the global discussion of Sputnik V, Russia used a familiar tactic: publish breaking stories that will be widely covered in international media. Russia’s Ministry of Health, unconstrained by international scientific standards, claimed the vaccine’s overwhelming effectiveness. The Russian government then used such flimsy data to back up proclamations that governments worldwide had expressed interest in the Sputnik V vaccine. With its messaging, Russia specifically targeted countries—such as Mozambique, Nigeria, and South Africa—where it competes with Western and Chinese influence. To underline the vaccine’s apparent efficacy, the Russian News Agency stated that as of December 2, one hundred thousand high-risk individuals had already received Sputnik V vaccinations in Russia.
One of the RTP’s most interesting findings was that before Pfizer’s announcement on November 11, the main driver of Russian disinformation throughout Africa was Russian President Vladimir Putin, who accounted for about 5 percent of quotes in traditional media—more than any other person. The next most quoted speaker is the Russian Minister of Health, Mikhail Murashko, at 1.4 percent. In coverage of other vaccines, meanwhile, the most quoted speakers have been heads of national health ministries or chief executives of companies producing vaccines, rather than heads of state.
Putin is front-and-center in the disinformation campaign because his cult of personality helps quell dissent from the scientific community. Putin himself announced the vaccine approval and, as a result, is quoted heavily in Sputnik V’s media coverage. Notably, in 69 percent of monitored traditional and social media outlets and 18 percent of quotes from Putin, the president mentions the administration of the “safe and effective” vaccine to one of his adult daughters—publicly endorsing the vaccine by putting his own family at risk.
Sputnik V’s popularity in African media is troubling, considering the vaccine has not undergone the same rigorous clinical trials as other contenders. The success of Russia’s disinformation and public relations strategy stems from the Kremlin’s ability—and willingness—to disseminate and emphasize its message about Sputnik V’s effectiveness. To counter Russian disinformation in the vaccine space, pharmaceutical professionals and politicians should devote more attention to highlighting the importance of rigorous clinical trials and explaining how vaccines in phase III trials meet acceptable standards. By emphasizing science rather than personally endorsing a “winning” vaccine, the vaccine debate can be re-framed in a way that more effectively combats Russian disinformation.