Ana Julia Niño Gamboa


A new ingredient bringing hope for all is added to the pandemic issues: The possibility of finding a safe and effective vaccine to protect against COVID-19. Although we are talking about health, research, and scientific breakthroughs, politics – or better, global geopolitics – appears in the recipe that each one of the countries in this battle wants to sign as a pioneer of the cure. It has been widely known that the United States, France, China, the United Kingdom, and Russia are all working on this research, and the World Health Organization (WHO) has reported that there are nearly 170 vaccines in development; of these, 30 are in the clinical trial phase, and six are nearing encouraging results.

Despite the importance of this issue, the information is not very detailed. It is easy to be knowledgeable of the great headlines; but it is necessary to fill in the details providing information on the required protocols that must be complied with so that the medicine is considered suitable. No explanations or data are available regarding the effects, age range, antibody response time, development of immunity, or its duration. In addition, public access information held by those in power compels them to act on two levels: to guarantee access for all and to be accountable.

The interest in having more data about the vaccine recently had a greater push following the announcement made by Russian president Vladimir Putin. On August 11, 2020, he stated that his country had registered the first vaccine against the coronavirus, after completing all the necessary tests. Since then, the media have been reflecting these declarations and the reactions, both from the WHO and from some authorities who have declared in favor, and others with doubts.

We are interested in reflecting the impact that this news has had in Venezuela. This implies exploring the information produced by the Venezuelan government, the scientific community, the Russian government itself and other countries. To this end, we are attempting at a review of sorts on the news published by the media. We start from the principle that information on the pandemic and related decisions made by the government are in the public domain. Therefore, this analysis, focusing on the Russian vaccine, aims at showing the elements being considered in the media on this issue as a way to warn about possible disinformation threats.

Our analysis involves 15 Venezuelan media outlets by means of an online review of their websites; we collected 131 news items produced in August 2020 (see Table 1). Despite the fact that clinical trials in several countries began to surface prominently as of June and July this year, for our research, it is the month under review, and especially since the announcement of the Russian president and the registration of his vaccine, the moment that triggers events with effects yet to be seen.

Table 1. News items per media outlet and bias

Media outletBiasItems
Source: Author’s research

“Three-tempo” analysis

Our research detected three highlights: i) One that began with the announcement of the Russian vaccine registration. Therefore, August 11 is a key moment in this research and marks an important milestone in our information gathering; ii) the second, of local importance, based on the statements from Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro, who volunteered to be the first to receive the Russian drug; and iii) in the last one, several elements are combined but mainly we focused on the alleged participation of Venezuela in the third phase of Sputnik-Vac tests. At each one of these stages, there is public interest data, and one way to check the availability of information is through the trained eye of journalists and the media.

i) Russian vaccine registration: The first moment was preceded by scattered data, surfacing on the media between June and July 2020, reporting on the studies that several countries were conducting to find a vaccine. However, these data were not detailed, there were no specifics on the stages at which these experiments were, the protocol they followed was not explained, and the number of tests on humans after those on animals was not known precisely. Nor was there any urgency to show the protection rate of the vaccine.

On August 1, Minister of Health Mikhail Murashko announced the completion of clinical trials for the first Russian vaccine, and stated that they were going to the registration stage. Of the fifteen websites that we reviewed, only four released this item, reproducing what was published by EFE news agency. Note the similarity of the headlines below.

Table 2. Headlines on completion of Russian COVID-19 vaccine tests

Media outletHeadline
Caraota DigitalLight at the end of the tunnel? Russia completes clinical trials of its first COVID-19 vaccine
Efecto CocuyoRussia completes clinical trials of its first COVID-19 vaccine, say authorities
El NacionalRussia completes clinical trials of its first COVID-19 vaccine
El PitazoRussia completes clinical trials of its first COVID-19 vaccine
Source: Author’s research

We make special mention of this event because it contextualizes, for example, the cautious reaction from the WHO (as reported by the media on August 4, 6, and 8) while raising hopes for six other potential vaccines from several countries that are at very advanced stages. Notwithstanding, it is also the moment when the public opinion raises doubts about the scientific and ethical procedures regarding these tests, their types, and the number of tests to be performed. In the news media reviewed, these data were not specified; we attribute it to the fact that the few media that replicated the information limited themselves to taking what was published by EFE.

Later, on August 11, Russian president Vladimir Putin announced the registration of his domestic vaccine. In this opportunity, most of the media reviewed did reflect that information, taking the content reported by international agencies and media. Also in the news was the declaration of US president Donald Trump (who assured his country was close to achieving a vaccine), the number of countries interested in obtaining the Russian vaccine and the position of the WHO regarding the mandatory prequalification that the vaccine should undergo.

The information on the Russian vaccine registration includes several issues and not all of them are in connection with the health of millions of people affected by COVID-19. In this case, it is evident the economic and geopolitical impact that this topic represents and, although it is not openly stated, it is undeniable that whoever first puts forward a solution to the coronavirus pandemic will take the scepter for managing a new scenario marked by the Russian presence in this multipolar international system. Many have compared this to a similar atmosphere of the power struggle during the Cold War, with Russia and the United States on center stage and even keeping an eye on the attitude of such multilateral bodies as WHO, or countries such as France, China, and the United Kingdom.

For the narrative of Nicolas Maduro’s government, the issue first like a shoe in. His denunciation of the sanctions imposed by the US government and his alignment with the governments of Russia and China, allow him to portray the achievement of the Russian vaccine as a topic of victory over Gringo imperialism. Precisely, this focal point interests us because, based upon it, public order decisions and agreements are announced. Therefore, citizens should be informed in a transparent manner and the media should have access to public information, as they and their journalists also are demanded a rigorous follow-up, fact checking, and verification work to meet the threat of disinformation.

In the tables below, we show the distribution by topic of the 22 news items of 11 media that, in releases dated August 12, reflect the news of the previous day. Subsequently, we detail the names of those media outlets and their headlines.

Table 3: Topics related to news on Sputnik-Vac development

Vaccine Registration6They all merely replicate what the international media has released
Clarification / Review by the WHO5Information taken from EFE and AFP
Donald Trump’s response2With information from EFE
Vaccine procurement3Information from news agencies replicated. The 20 countries concerned are not detailed.
Vaccine-related facts3El Pitazo newsdesk staff writes an item // La Patilla reproduces a news item prepared by Argentina’s Clarín// Efecto Cocuyo replicates from BBC News / Mundo
Doubts about Russian vaccine1Report taken from BBC News / Mundo
Endorsement by Putin1Putin is confident of the results because his daughter received the vaccine.
Source: Author’s research

Topics based on news items

Table 4: List of the 20 media outlets and headlines on the topic

Media outletHeadlineTopic
Caraota DigitalRussia announced registration of its vaccineVaccine registration
Correo OrinocoOver 20 countries requested 1 billion doses of Russian vaccineVaccine procurement
CDCCSRussia officially registers first COVID-19 vaccine in the worldVaccine registration
Efecto CocuyoTrump says US also close to getting a vaccineTrump and promised U.S. vaccine
Efecto CocuyoWhat we know about the massive coronavirus vaccination plan
that Russia claims to have in place and why it raises questions
Doubts about Russian vaccine
Efecto CocuyoRussian vaccine to be reviewed for pre-qualificationReview by the WHO
Efecto CocuyoCOVID-19 vaccine: What are adjuvants and whyVaccine-related facts

searching for them is as important as for the vaccines
El NacionalPutin: Russia registered first vaccine against COVID-19Vaccine registration
El NacionalPutin says daughter received Russian coronavirus vaccineEndorsement by Putin
El NacionalTrump announces agreement with Moderna to obtain 100 million doses of its COVID-19 vaccineTrump’s agreement with Moderna
El NacionalWHO says Russian vaccine should be reviewed for pre-qualificationClarification by the WHO
La Iguana TVAt last: Putin announces registration of the world’s first Coronavirus vaccine in RussiaVaccine registration
El PitazoPutin announces that Russia has developed a vaccine for COVID-19Vaccine registration
El PitazoWHO: Russian vaccine should be reviewed for pre-qualificationReview by the WHO
El PitazoCOVID-19 vaccines, what is known so far?Vaccine-related facts
El PitazoWill the Russian vaccine against COVID-19 reach Venezuela?
La PatillaFacts: What we know so far about the Russian coronavirus vaccineVaccine-related facts
La PatillaWHO stresses that the Russian vaccine should be reviewed for pre-qualificationClarification by the WHO
La PatillaWHO recalls need for “rigorous procedures” after Russian vaccine announcementClarification by the WHO
Tal CualOver 20 countries would have asked Russia for the coronavirus vaccineVaccine procurement
TelesurRussia announced to the world the registration of its first vaccine against SARS-Cov 2, the virus responsible for COVID-19Vaccine registration
Últimas Noticias20 countries interested in Russian vaccine against COVID-19Vaccine procurement
Source: Author’s research

The contents of these news items show that the information of local websites was initially published “as is” from international agencies and media. However, the article in El Pitazo stands out, asking “Will the Russian vaccine against COVID-19 reach Venezuela?”, in which it points out that the government’s reaction was limited to congratulating the alleged breakthrough from Russia (by means of a press release posted on Twitter by Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza on August 12), in context with other procedures regarding Russian drugs previously announced by Venezuela. Nevertheless, at that time, nothing was mentioned about bringing the vaccine to the country. That happened later.

ii) Nicolas Maduro volunteers to be the first to receive the vaccine: So he stated on Sunday, August 16. For our research, this moment is relevant because it was not a sudden reaction following the Russian announcement. The statement was made five days later. However, it did not receive any major coverage in the news sites reviewed, not even in those run by state-owned media, and those that mentioned it did so in an almost anecdotal way. We consider that Maduro’s statement is not just a mere personal decision; it is one by a head of State, in a national address on quarantine in Venezuela and the maintenance of the domestic 7 x 7 scheme (one week of strict lockdown and one week of flexible quarantine), until a vaccine is available. It is then that he lets volunteering as the first to be vaccinated slip through and assures things he does not know about the drug. Although the government has no qualms about the issue of ignorance, in the press release from the Foreign Affairs Ministry a few days earlier, it also expressed assurances regarding the Russian medication based only on what President Putin had said.

This shows how, on occasions, the weight of information, especially that produced by the government, is ignored. It also sets the path for disinformation because, with so little data and knowledge, with so much opacity albeit many assurances, the government puts public health security at risk. Furthermore, the media miss the opportunity to warn about vital issues or voice the doubts that logically arise from lack of access to information. For example, how can it be ensured that Russia has completed each and every step towards its vaccine registration, while Phase 3 trials are underway, which are part of the steps to be completed. None of the news items reviewed mentioned whether the Russian law allows for such a procedure when testing is still pending; nor is it reported whether the law of the land has protocols other than those required by the WHO. All these are cardinal data. Ultimately, this is about the health and lives of people around the world, even though the focus on geopolitical power playing, joined by the Venezuelan government without even having the data required, is predominant.

iii) Venezuelan guinea pigs: With more doubts to clear up than reliable information, on August 22, the media reported that Carlos Alvarado, Minister of Health, assured that Venezuela would contribute 500 volunteers to Phase 3 of the Russian project. In this case, Venezuelan websites announce the news and complete it with data available in international media, which echo statements from vaccine experts and early misgivings by the WHO.

This third and last “tempo” has very valuable elements showing the government’s disposition in view of the information regarding facts over which its political interest prevails. The thought of 500 Venezuelans being selected for clinical trials of this vaccine deserves better treatment of information from the government and a vigilant attitude from the media.

Hoping to find a cure for COVID-19 is not an obstacle to demand all the necessary facts to demand the best-informed decision for the country. In this case, several rights that should be addressed daily in the media are at stake. We are talking about the fact that citizens who volunteer for the tests must have enough information about the opportunities and risks ahead of them. It is about encouraging informed consent, which, apart from being an ethical obligation of the government, is a constitutional right of individuals based on the guarantee of access to information.

However, it is also about public information regarding the agreements that the country may sign or has signed with Russia to participate in the clinical trials, buy the drug, or for its manufacture, technology transfer, etc.

All the information we weight to should help think about the possible outcome: If there are side effects, the impact is on health and could also affect the citizens’ confidence in science, in their authorities, and in any vaccine. If the vaccine does not protect (because it has not been proven it does) and people do not have enough information, a false sense of security regarding immunization could be encouraged, which is twice as risky at this time of the pandemic in Venezuela.

We could continue to expand the list of possibilities not being discussed by the government and not being provided space in the form of concern or criticism by the national press, at least not in the outlets reviewed in this piece.

In closing

The news of the Russian injection registration were surprising because that country was not on the list of those six with vaccines at the most advanced development stages published by the WHO. Although Russian spokespersons later admitted that they had to complete another stage, the news had already gained momentum with all its consequential effects; but that fact shows signs of interests other than health. Once this news reached Venezuela, the expectation of media coverage reaches the point for the media to seek to provide the best context to help people understand thereby fulfilling their controlling and critical duty regarding such controversial issues.

The news sites reviewed have largely limited themselves to reproducing content from international media. However, it would be expected that this input would motivate fact checking and verification of the data available to convey the information to our local context, especially following releases issued, one by the Venezuelan Society of Child Care and Pediatrics (Sociedad Venezolana de Puericultura y Pediatría), and a second, by the National Academy of Medicine (Academia Nacional de Medicina) along with the Academy of Physical, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences (Academia de Ciencias Físicas, Matemáticas y Naturales) and other health-related organizations, which provide arguments of scientific and ethical nature under international standards.

In any case, the events are still in progress and how they are approached will surely change once vaccine tests are conducted in Venezuela.

Medianalisis Cotejo Fake News En Este País