By Ana Julia Niño Gamboa
In a propaganda bait-and-switch scheme, Russia cries wolf over legitimate concerns during the development of Sputnik V vaccine. Now certified, its disinformation campaign aims at playing the victim. Here is a review.
The Russian vaccine leaves a trail marked by controversy. First was the announcement of its registration before reliable, scientific information was available on the results of its clinical trials. Before data on Phase III trials were released, Russia was already offering millions of doses to several countries with no guarantee of being able to deliver the orders placed. There is constant opacity in the protocols for signing agreements to which mandatory confidentiality clauses are attached that go beyond protecting the formula or the price offered. In fact, Argentina shielded, by means of a law, any access to information on the agreements, and Venezuela is protected by its Anti-Blockade Law, which rules out any citizen and institutional oversight initiatives.
Nothing is known about the nature of the agreements and the transfer of technology to guarantee the production of the drug. Nor is there any information on vaccination plans. Therefore, the issue goes from obtaining the vaccine to vaccination, a matter that is approached from politics over science or the health safety that COVID-19 demands.
To date, when there seems to be already substantial evidence of the drug’s effectiveness, then those reasonable doubts prevailing earlier are pointed out as a hostile bias towards Russia, that is, relevant facts continue to be dismissed, which would prevent informational disorder and conspiracy theories. This, per se, is a pattern that is repeated from Russia and that friendly countries replicate in its orchestration.
In this investigative exercise, we present the results of the review on 13 official sources of information, starting from Venezuela and including, comparatively, some media in Argentina, Mexico, and Bolivia. All of them reproduce the disinformative nature that seems to be a genetically Russian pattern.
Over 120 days have elapsed since the Minister of Health of the Nicolás Maduro administration announced the start of Phase III trials of the Russian vaccine Sputnik V, and over 60 days since his Vice President Delcy Rodríguez assured having 10 million doses of the drug in stock. The availability of official information is still pending. There are no signs or gestures pointing to a change in the secretive habit of the government regarding the treatment of public information. Instead, there are no data available beyond anecdotal accounts: Maduro announces that his son Nicolás and his sister María Teresa are being vaccinated, that at the end of the trials he will also be vaccinated, and that the Russian drug is already running through the arms of Latin America. In this tone, he heralds this achievement by and the standing of his Russian friends in Venezuela as a counterpart to the US blockade. Rather than cure or information, there is propaganda and proselytism.
In the table below, we list the media reviewed for this study:
|VENEZOLANA DE TELEVISIÓN
Likewise, we searched for information available on three official websites, namely:
|MINISTRY OF HEALTH
|SISTEMA PATRIA (Fatherland System)
|COMMUNICATION AND INFORMATION MINISTRY
In this research, we looked at the natural source of this public information, so we assessed what is available on official websites. Additionally, we reviewed local media coverage and triangulated media treatment in the countries selected: Argentina, Bolivia, and Mexico. This translated into finding at least 15 primary sources sorted in 12 media outlets and 3 official websites. The review period is broad, since the aim is to trace a timeline from the official announcements on the vaccine to this report’s publication date. This covers events from August 12, 2020 to February 13, 2021.
The intended review is focused on official sources and coverage on the media outlets selected. Through them, we aim to understand what they reveal and also what they remain silent on, a design that allows us to detect a pattern of behavior and treatment of public information as handled by those in power, especially that regarding the promotion of the Russian vaccine.
This is a research with a qualitative, documentary perspective, and our corpus focuses on the data we have been able to obtain from the federal Executive’s official sites, in news items published by the media selected, both local and foreign.
The reading of the sources was conducted online. To this end, we have resorted to the Google search engine and, in some instances, we have used its advanced search tool. Our tool of information gathering and data buildup is based on content analysis, with its initial categories aiming to establish whether or not a media outlet has any news on the subject under investigation and, if it does, what the angle taken is.
With this work, we intend to document a trend that has increasingly gained momentum in this time of pandemic: Poor management of public information. We also bring a critical sample of how the presence of Moscow’s interests and their protection by the government of Nicolás Maduro gravitate towards it.
Russia is making a strong bid to bring its Sputnik V vaccine to Latin America. However, its offers largely exceed the stock of the drug, regardless of the contracts and agreements signed. Although the objective of this study focuses on assessing the government’s information policy on this topic – as it is sensitive public information for which transparency should prevail, the management of the vaccine provides perspective that could be inferred as a pattern of Moscow’s behavior, replicated in its allies’ (dis)information policies.
Indeed, the Russian vaccine was preceded by controversy: First, the announcement of its registration before releasing the results of its clinical trials; then came the offer of this product worldwide before completing Phase III and without being able to measure its production ceiling or the technological transfer timelines that would guarantee its manufacturing in friendly countries. All these factors further complicate delivering on the commitments made. To date, when there seems to be already well-founded evidence of the effectiveness of the drug, then the reasonable doubts prevailing earlier are pointed out as a hostile bias towards Russia, that is, the importance of the facts continues to be dismissed, which would prevent informational disorder and conspiracy theories. This, per se, is a repetitive pattern.
The review conducted yields a timeline with information worth specifying:
|Russia announces registration of Sputnik V.
|Maduro pledges to use it in Venezuela.
|The Minister of Health offers 500 volunteers for Phase III of Sputnik V.
|Arrival of vaccines (doses?) for Phase III trials on 2,000 volunteers – not 500 – is announced.
|The Ministry of Health assures selection of volunteers signing up on its website.
|The Vice President assures to have 10 million doses agreed with Russia.
|The Minister of Health states that, to date, over 120 people have been vaccinated.
|The Vice President announces signing of contract for 10 million vaccines.
|Clinical immunologist Alexis García Piñero, lead vaccine clinical trial researcher, informs that over 300 volunteers have applied for the study in the research initiated in December 2020.
|Nicolás Maduro announces that 100,000 vaccines will arrive in Venezuela.
|The 100,000 vaccines announced arrive in Venezuela.
Nicolás Maduro was one of the first to announce that the vaccine would be used in Venezuela. Moreover, he expressed his desire to be the first to be inoculated (six months later, this has still not happened). When the Minister of Health, Carlos Alvarado, assured that the selection of the volunteers would be done after signing up on the website of his office, he also stated that this phase of trials would last 180 days. By late December, he informed that over 120 people had been vaccinated during Phase III without adverse reactions. The truth is that, after over 120 days from the start of trials, there is no consolidated information on results and the number of participants does not seem to go beyond 300 of the 2,000 announced.
Regarding the statement from Vice-President Delcy Rodríguez about having those 10 million doses agreed with Russia – within the framework of the 264 strategic cooperation projects between both governments for which information is shielded by the Anti-Blockade Law, it is only known that said agreement was signed without having the results of Phase III trials in the country, apart from the delivery of 100,000 vaccines that arrived on Saturday, February 13, 2021 (barely 1% of what was allegedly assured). It is also unclear whether this quantity of doses is arriving.
When Nicolás Maduro made known that 100,000 Russian vaccines would arrive in Venezuela, he announced that “when the vaccination process begins”, all medical personnel, all healthcare staff, the most vulnerable demographics, and teachers, would be inoculated. Likewise, he spoke of giving priority also to members of the political party founded by him and his vice president, the Somos Venezuela (We Are Venezuela) movement. He did not provide details on selection protocols. Neither a date was given for the beginning of the rollout, nor was it specified if it was really about vaccines or doses. This, although it seems semantics, constitutes a substantial difference to indicate how many arms will reached by the Russian drug. As of the end of 2020, Maduro has said that the massive vaccination plan would start in April; then he said in March. To date, this data cannot be accessed because the strategy has been disinformation dosed drop by drop.
Contract terms with the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) seem to require confidentiality on matters other than the price of the vaccine. This is an indicator of the way the tale on the drug has been told so far. Let us remind that the registration of the drug was announced without the clinical studies having been concluded; now agreements are being signed in the shadows, without any assurances of delivery to buyers. Meanwhile, no time is wasted in marketing Moscow’s image. However, even for that, credibility has to be built and maintained, and much of it is earned by informing transparently.
In the review of our foreign sources, we detected that the multi-state channel Telesur serves as a vehicle of information boosting pro-Kremlin talking points in the region.
For their part, the Argentine media question access to contract data. Some refer to Law 27573, which vests the government with the authority to “include standard confidentiality clauses or agreements in the international market of vaccines intended to develop acquired immunity against COVID-19”, although it binds the government to submit a copy to National Congress [Legislative] health-related committees, a procedure reportedly not complied with.
In Bolivia, the media have also echoed the lack of information available regarding the Russian vaccine and have blown the whistle on the confidentiality clauses required by Russia, which prevent access to data that must be in the public domain. Quite a few media outlets have engaged in verifying the information disseminated by official spokespersons on the percentage of healthcare staff being vaccinated. In most of the statements, the data are false. This raises the suspicion that the official narrative manipulates the figures with proselytizing intentions.
The Mexican media have exposed the winding path of the drug from Russia: They report that the purchase was agreed before approval from the Federal Commission for Protection against Health Risks (Comisión Federal para la Protección de Riesgos Sanitarios, COFEPRIS); the signing of the contracts and the terms thereto remain in the dark. Meanwhile, the arrival of the drug is rather promoted as a political move, which poses a threat to public health. COFEPRIS approved the emergency use of the Russian vaccine on February 2, 2021, concurrently with the date of publication of results in the scientific journal The Lancet. The procurement process was conducted through Argentina. Since then, it was reported that the agreement was signed for 24 million doses with a delivery schedule of 400,000 in February, 1 million in March, 6 million in April and the remainder in May. Nothing can be assured and public information is restricted to news “pills” provided as information placebo.
- We are not oblivious of the official habit of withholding public information without legal grounds. Now, the outlook does not seem any better, as the government is barricaded behind its Anti-Blockade Law, bestowing upon it an almost unlimited authority to withhold information that is sensitively public from citizen scrutiny. This evil has intensified in this time of national emergency in reason of the advent of the coronavirus into the country, as it further shows the systemic opacity of Chavismo.
- Difficulties of access to public information are a constant that we detect as a common trait. In these cases, the records released by the media are fundamental to expose this trend towards opacity marked by propaganda. This can be a starting point for future studies demonstrating how propaganda fits not only as an element of ideology promotion, but also as a device of disinformation and conspiracy theories.
- In the past, the primary issue centered on obtaining the vaccine; today it is the vaccination rollout, an approach not alien to its locally political and globally geopolitical implications. In any case, both revolve around a life-death discussion reduced to the political rather than the scientific realm.
- The political use of the vaccine is not limited to Russian interests. The countries reviewed have also deployed propaganda not so much on the vaccine as on vaccination, which has been used as a domestic political strategy. The problem with this expectation game is the inevitable failure to meet their self-imposed goals, thereby breeding frustration.