By Robin Emmott
BRUSSELS – A systematic disinformation campaign in Russian media to foster doubts and misgivings about COVID-19 vaccines in the West has backfired as the death toll in Russia rises to record daily tolls, a European Union report said on Thursday.
Facing a sharp rise in COVID-19 infections and deaths and a widespread reluctance among Russians to get inoculated, President Vladimir Putin approved a government proposal on Wednesday for a week-long workplace shutdown in Russia at the start of November to curb the spread of the virus.
The EU study said Russian state broadcaster RT and other media outlets had sown mistrust about the efficacy and safety of vaccines on their European websites in a number of languages, including Russian.
“Disinformation can kill. That should be kept in mind when we see Kremlin media continue spreading lies on COVID-19 and the vaccines, even as the death tolls in Russia are surging,” said the EU study, entitled “Disinformation Review”.
The Kremlin denies all disinformation allegations by the EU, which produces regular reports and seeks to work with Google, Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft to limit the spread of fake news.
The EU has documented what it says is Russian disinformation since early on in the pandemic in January 2020, via the bloc’s foreign service EEAS. It is part of what the EU says is a broader Russian effort to weaken and divide Western societies.
Citing its own database on disinformation, the EU study said it found over 250 cases by Russian outlet Geopolitica.ru that sought to ridicule COVID-19 vaccinations and other measures.
“The claim of the uselessness of the vaccine is repeated in Italian, in Spanish, in English, in Dutch, and in Russian,” the study found.
“The vaccines work. But the lies work as well,” the EU report said, noting “a chorus of false claims and conspiracy theories on the vaccine … risking the lives of thousands uponr thousands of people, internationally and in Russia.”
Russia on Thursday reported 1,036 coronavirus-related deaths in the last 24 hours as well as 36,339 new infections, both record daily highs, and Moscow’s mayor announced COVID-19 lockdown measures from Oct. 28.
Russia was quick to develop and launch its Sputnik vaccine when the pandemic struck last year, but uptake has been slow, with many Russians citing distrust of the authorities and fear of new medical products.
Only around 48 million out of 144 million Russians were fully vaccinated as of mid-October, with 51 million having received one shot, a much lower level of inoculation than in western European countries.
(Reporting by Robin Emmott; Editing by Gareth Jones)