Western media seems to be blissfully unaware that by attacking Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, for seemingly geopolitical reasons, it’s handing ammunition to people at home who seek to argue that no jab is safe.
The roll-out of American Big Pharma’s Covid-19 vaccine has been covered in the West as a medical miracle. But Russia’s alternative, the first in the world to be registered, has either been largely ignored or savaged, by the US/UK press.
On Tuesday, the UK’s state broadcaster BBC pushed out two headlines on new jabs being made available across the globe. In the first, it set out how 90-year-old Margaret Keenan had become the “first in the world to receive a Covid-19 vaccine outside of a trial,” after getting the Pfizer vaccine in England. But, in almost the same breath, they reported that mass immunization had already begun in Moscow on the previous Saturday with Russia’s own formula.
Although the site did eventually update its coverage to reflect the fact that, while Keenan might have set records in the UK, she was far from a world-first, the misstep shows how Russia’s pioneering fight against Covid-19 is out of sight and out of mind in the West. Major newspapers including the Financial Times joined a chorus of outlets claiming that Britons have received the “world’s first approved Covid-19 vaccine” despite, like the BBC, previously acknowledging that Sputnik V had already claimed that title.
The tone of the coverage has also been markedly different depending on whether it is Western-made formulas or Sputnik V in the spotlight. While Keenan’s trip to the nurse was sold as an inspirational sign that the pandemic might be coming to an end, by contrast the BBC claimed that Russia’s vaccine had been “rushed out to wary Russians.” It carried a picture of an unnamed man squinting suspiciously while having the shot.
In reality, trial data for Sputnik V was made publicly available in The Lancet international medical journal in September, and wide-scale trials are already underway in a number of countries across the world, including Hungary, Venezuela and the UAE, and more than 1.2 billion doses have been ordered globally. The vaccine’s creators at Moscow’s Gamaleya Institute insist that it is safe, and that around 95 percent of the 45,000 trial subjects have developed immunity to the virus.
While the BBC talks of wary Russians, it failed to acknowledge the growing anti-vaccination movement across Europe and America. Earlier this week, a new poll found that as many as one in three Britons say that they would be unlikely to accept a jab against Covid-19, far below the threshold needed for herd immunity, to ensure those who cannot be immunised for health reasons are protected. Unless that changes, hopes for a return to normal will fall short. Around half of those who said they’d be reluctant cited safety risks, with a similar number casting doubt over whether a vaccine would work.
Figures for the US are even more concerning, with 39 percent of Americans telling one pollster that they would probably or definitely refuse a jab. The statistics indicate how rapidly the anti-vax movement has gained ground in the minds of the public, with a spate of protests breaking out across Western nations, railing against lockdowns, promoting fringe theories about Covid-19 and the idea that vaccination is part of a global plot.
However, Western media has also been accused of amplifying these conspiracy theories. In an article on Sunday, the UK’s Daily Mail reported that Russia was engaging in a shadowy campaign of sowing suspicion around coronavirus vaccines. According to them, “Vladimir Putin doesn’t want you to take the Covid vaccine.” Instead, the newspaper argued, “we are not simply under attack from the Covid virus. We’re also under direct attack by a hostile foreign power. Putin is trying to use Covid to kill people on the streets of Britain.”
On Tuesday, Mark Ames, the host of the popular War Nerd podcast, hit out at a perceived double standard, mocking reports that “evil Rooskies (sic) spread disinformation about Anglo world’s vaccine efforts. Whereas Anglo media altruistically raises doubts about Rooskie vaccine efforts because we all know Rooskies can’t be trusted.”
While the notion might be hard to believe, given Russia’s efforts to develop, manufacture and export vast quantities of the vaccine, it is a potentially dangerous one. The idea that coronavirus is part of a geopolitical game, and a tool of foreign leaders, is one that has caught on in anti-vax circles, and will actively undermine immunization programmes. It also adds to suggestions, such as those put forward by the BBC, that any country – in this case, the world’s largest – would ever seek to roll out to its entire population a jab that hadn’t been tried and tested, and found to be safe. By attacking the distribution of Sputnik V in Moscow, the BBC also plays into the hands of ‘anti-vaxxers’ at home.