Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Russian State Media: U.S. Versus Russia in COVID-19 Vaccine Race
Russian State Media: U.S. Versus Russia in  COVID-19 Vaccine Race

Russian State Media: U.S. Versus Russia in COVID-19 Vaccine Race

October 2, 2020

Post by Charlie Mathews

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Russian state-sponsored media outlets have worked to denigrate the U.S. response, create uncertainty in American society, and undermine faith in democratic institutions. As President Trump has fought with public health officials over vaccine distribution timelines, Russian state media has sought to boost their own COVID-19 vaccine while casting doubt on the efficacy and safety of Western vaccines currently under development.

Russia has attempted to use the COVID-19 pandemic to create a positive public perception abroad—widely publicizing Russian shipments of PPE to Italy and ventilators to the United States despite concerns about the quality and authenticity of provided aid. More recently, Russia may hope to mitigate the economic and budgetary damage of the coronavirus at home by profiting off of a COVID-19 vaccine. Russia’s efforts to improve public perception of their coronavirus vaccine, which President Vladimir Putin announced on August 11, 2020, consist of three distinct narratives observed in their state-backed media outlets.

First, Russian state-sponsored media has sought to highlight positive scientific coverage of the Sputnik V vaccine. These efforts include citations of the very Western scientists Russia seeks to undermine in other stories, as well as friendly claims from Russian institutions. For example, one Sputnik News article contrasted the pause of an AstraZeneca trial with a quote from The Lancet, stating that the Sputnik V vaccine is “100 percent effective” with “no serious adverse effects.” 

Second, Russia has portrayed itself as an international leader throughout the pandemic, publicizing supplies of the Sputnik V vaccine in BrazilIndia, and other nations suffering from sustained COVID-19 outbreaks. 

Third, Kremlin media has deflected Western criticism of the Russian vaccine, claiming the true motivation is to make profit by protecting Western pharmaceutical companies.

Russian efforts to undermine faith in potential U.S. vaccines similarly consist of three separate narratives. First, state-media outlets have amplified safety concerns from Western vaccine trials, primarily AstraZeneca’s recent complication. Russia has ironically highlighted American concern over potential side-effects from the very same institutions they previously sought to portray as inept and incapable of protecting the American public. 

Next, Russian media has pushed narratives designed to further politicize COVID-19 vaccine development, such as one Sputnik News story quoting Dr. Rick Bright’s statement that he “was pressured to let politics and cronyism drive decisions” regarding a vaccine. These narratives are designed to undermine public faith in the motivations for vaccine approval. This has coincided with a growing resistance among the American public to receive the first COVID-19 vaccine in part due to the perception of political influence in the development process. 

Lastly, Russia has worked to undermine confidence in American public health institutions, casting their decisions as ill-conceived or politically motivated. For example, an RT article ridiculed Dr. Robert Redfield’s statement that a “face mask is more guaranteed to protect me” than a “COVID vaccine.”

Ultimately, the information war between the Kremlin in America will be determined by which country’s information consumers trust more—the United States or Russia. Until recently, the world nearly always put their faith in America, but times have changed and the geopolitical stage has morphed. COVID-19 conspiracies and disinformation born at home and abroad continue to spread, likely to propel even further after the president reportedly tested positive for COVID-19 on October 1, 2020. Only time will tell us which country’s vaccine will prove effective and establish some bearing on truth.