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Disinformation, the deliberate spread of false information with the intent to manipulate or change facts and deceive audiences, has gained prominence as a tool of political persuasion within the past decade. No government has mastered this strategy more than Russia. The race to research, develop, test, approve, and distribute effective COVID-19 vaccines has turned the search for global normalcy into yet another frontier to be exploited for geopolitical gain.
The Russian government’s vaccine diplomacy began with its development of Sputnik V, a vaccine viewed with skepticism by most of the world before a positive assessment of 91.6 percent efficacy was published in The Lancet, Britain’s leading medical publication. Even before outside verification of its efficacy, the effects of Russia’s widespread disinformation campaign and promotion of Sputnik V proved to be very influential throughout Latin America, leading many Latin American countries to make deals with Russia to obtain doses for distribution. In addition to a general lack of resources, politics and disinformation campaigns are influencing which vaccines Latin American nations attempt to secure. One of the intentions of Russian media is to generate enough confusion to undermine counternarratives and weaken the credibility of governmental institutions throughout the region.
Buy Russian, you have no choice
The eagerness to secure Russian vaccines on behalf of Latin American populations is influenced by a confluence of factors. Although Latin American countries have been among the hardest hit by the pandemic, they have fallen behind wealthier nations in securing vaccines. According to the University of Oxford, as of mid-February, South American countries had dispensed fewer than two doses of any COVID-19 vaccine per 100 people on average, compared to almost five doses per 100 people in the EU and over 14 doses per 100 people in the United States. This is in part due to wealthier countries, like the U.S., stockpiling supplies. As of mid-February, the U.S. had secured 48 percent, or 300 million doses, of Moderna’s available supply, and 24 percent, or 300 million doses, of Pfizer’s available supply. With the recent approval of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, more doses will flood into the U.S. healthcare system.
All in all, the U.S. has purchased over one billion doses for a population of 330 million. While this characteristic hoarding by the wealthiest country in the world is nothing new, it should make us question if vaccine supply purchases should be made on a “first-come, first-serve basis,” or if the World Health Organization should draft a framework to organize how vaccines should be purchased and distributed in the event of a pandemic.
While the Biden administration continues to reaffirm its dedication to donating surplus vaccines to other countries and asserts its commitment to participating in the COVAX initiative, plans for distributing donated vaccine doses have yet to be revealed. The COVAX initiative aims to donate two billion doses to middle and low-income countries by the end of 2021. The initiative plans to ramp up donation distribution in the second half of the year as wealthier nations meet their vaccination goals, meaning that many Latin American countries that fall into the middle to low-income categories will have to wait to receive additional doses. Many middle- to low-income countries are not expected to have the majority of their populations vaccinated until 2023. This leaves countries dependent on state-funded vaccines from non-Western powers if they hope to secure more doses this year. Russia and China have been more than happy to fill this need.
The disinformation czar
A possible second reason that Latin American countries have jumped to secure Sputnik V can be tied to Russian disinformation campaigns and their strong influence over countries led by left-wing governments. According to disinformation experts and analyses of Kremlin-supported media outlets, Moscow has undertaken a global disinformation campaign aimed at undermining Western vaccines and promoting Sputnik V. This campaign began last August, when the Russian Ministry of Health approved Sputnik V before the vaccine had begun phase III clinical trials. Since the beginning, Russian disinformation has specifically targeted developing countries, such as those in Latin America and Africa.
In Africa, Novetta–a company that collects traditional and social media data from all 54 African countries–tracked overall positive public perceptions and media coverage of Sputnik V on the continent. It found that non-Russian media support for the vaccine originated from a Russian disinformation campaign targeting countries with former and current ties to Russia and the former USSR. Disinformation strategies, such as publishing breaking news based on limited or incorrect data, or quoting Russian President Vladimir Putin at length, were used to target countries like Mozambique, Nigeria, and South Africa. Notably, these are all countries in which Russia competes for influence with the West and China. Similar tactics have been observed in Latin America.
Vaccine coverage in Russian Spanish-language outlets has highlighted how many of the region’s governments were leaning toward, or had already secured, the Russian vaccine. Kremlin-backed media has also been aggressive in promoting conspiracy theories in the region, disseminating articles on Facebook and Twitter that target vaccines made in the U.S. and Europe. These articles usually highlight the potentially harmful side effects of the vaccines, and promote the narrative that companies waited to make their findings public until after the U.S. presidential election in order to undermine former President Donald Trump. Revealingly, attacks on AstraZeneca were also common until the company reached a vaccine testing agreement with Sputnik V. After analyzing over 1,000 Russian-aligned Twitter accounts, the State Department’s Global Engagement Center found that Spanish-language accounts showed the greatest engagement (that is, likes and retweets). Additionally, it was found that only 20 percent of Spanish-language posts received disinformation warning labels, compared with 70 percent of those in English, further signaling the Kremlin’s focus on Latin America.
By executing a disinformation campaign that has portrayed the West’s response to COVID-19 as lagging behind Russia’s, the Kremlin has worked to undermine trust in the West while opening new commercial markets for itself. In positioning Russia as a state willing to provide the vaccine to those in need when the U.S. refuses to do so, Russian state media’s messaging in Latin America suggests that Western companies have missed the opportunity to score a moral victory by focusing on vaccinating domestic populations, and allowing the privatization of vaccines through patent processes. Through disseminating this information, Russia hopes to strengthen and repair relationships in the region in order to gain more influence in regional politics, thus expanding Russian soft power. The Kremlin, similar to China, is also seeking to better its reputation amidst protests and concerns about human rights at home, in the hopes of expanding future commercial interests in the region.
Russia insists that criticism of Sputnik V or its vaccine diplomacy is part of a disinformation campaign against the country. To effectively counter and reframe Russian disinformation about Western vaccines, health officials and politicians should emphasize science and the importance of clinical trials in determining the safety and efficacy of a vaccine. Additionally, working to identify and stop the spread of false or purposefully misleading stories will be crucial, especially those coming from official accounts that possess popular credibility.
The Latin American supply situation
High-income countries are purchasing vaccines that have undergone rigorous clinical trials, have been proven safe and efficient through peer-reviewed studies before being administered, and are continuing to be manufactured by local companies. These nations are buying most of their vaccine supply from Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca.
However, few countries in Latin America have the capacity to manufacture vaccines at scale. Moreover, most of them do not have the economic might, nor the political clout, to nudge their way to the front of the line for vaccine imports. Therefore, the region turned to vaccine distributors that had not completed and/or shared the data from their phase III trials after they were authorized and administered.
The vaccine influence tracker from Think Global Health allows us to analyze vaccine distribution throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. In low-income countries, Gamelaya (more commonly referred to as Sputnik V), AstraZeneca, and Moderna average the same market share (33 percent), yet this proportion changes in low-middle income countries. In these countries, the Chinese vaccine—Sinovac—averages a 23.5 percent market share, whereas Sputnik V averages a 14.7 percent share.
There is a blurry line between what could be seen as vaccine diplomacy and goodwill, and what is, in fact, a facade for a political strategy aimed to cement spheres of influence, “rather than advancing global health equity.” Countries like Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Ecuador, and Uruguay have purchased Sinovac, while Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia, and Venezuela have negotiated for and received the Sputnik V vaccine. These countries were also subject to Russian disinformation campaigns.
Argentina, governed by the left-wing and Peronist Justicialist Party, rushed to authorize Sputnik V. It began administering the Russian vaccine a month before data on its safety and efficacy data was published in The Lancet in mid-February. The Argentinean vaccine campaign can be understood in two ways. First, Argentina implemented one of the most severe lockdowns on the continent. However, the lack of access to efficient healthcare services and the poor enforcement of the lockdown have contributed to a high death rate, even worse than that of other countries that implemented less stringent lockdowns. When Argentina authorized the use of the Sputnik V vaccines, the country had already lost more than 45,000 people to the disease and had a desperate need to acquire a vaccine as soon as possible. Since the U.S. and the EU had already secured most of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine supplies, Argentina was forced to opt for the “second-best” vaccines that were available on the market.
Nonetheless, Galit Alter—a professor of medicine at the Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT, and Harvard—has noted that Sputnik V may be a perfectly good option for Argentina since it is a DNA vaccine that is inexpensive to produce and does not require super-cold temperatures for storage. However, the AstraZeneca vaccine, which will be distributed in Latin American countries through COVAX, is also similarly cheap and easy to store.
Government officials from Argentina and other Latin American countries were also put into a difficult position during their initial negotiations with Western pharmaceutical giants. According to officials, during negotiations with Pfizer, the company demanded additional indemnity against civil lawsuits citizens might file concerning its COVID-19 vaccine. Moreover, the pharmaceutical company requested that the government put up sovereign assets as collateral for potential future legal costs.
Mexico was another one of the first countries in the region to reach a deal with Russia to obtain doses of its vaccine, despite lacking outside verification of its efficacy. Near the end of January, Mexico’s assistant health secretary, Hugo López-Gatell, announced that the Federal Committee for Protection from Sanitary Risks (COFEPRIS) was only missing “some details” to give the final go-ahead on the approval of the vaccine. These missing details included access to the results of Sputnik V’s phase III trials. In the first week of February, López-Gatell announced the signing of a contract to procure 24 million doses of the vaccine, which are set to be distributed in various stages through May.
To completely understand the influence of Russia’s disinformation campaign in Mexico, it is necessary to analyze the country’s political ties to Moscow. In recent years, Mexico has become one of Russia’s main political partners in the region, second only to Brazil. The development and fortification of ties with Russia have enabled and promoted the expansion of Russia’s influence in the region, a critical piece in the success of their disinformation campaigns.
The widespread use of, and demand for, the Sputnik V vaccine in Mexico can be attributed to two main factors. First, it is the result of the vaccine diplomacy that Russia has conducted in Latin America, especially after other pharmaceutical companies fell short in their distribution promises and plans. By late January, Mexico had only been able to secure about 750,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine, an amount insufficient to even comprehensively protect the country’s frontline healthcare workers. Mexico’s inability to secure enough Western vaccines, and the pressure of almost 200,000 deaths, prompted a search for other vaccines. Russia’s Sputnik V promised a solution, with readily available doses and the promise of a steady influx of additional doses in the future.
Second, Mexico’s ties to the Kremlin have aided the spread of misinformation surrounding other COVID-19 vaccines and the promotion of Sputnik V. The Twitter and Facebook accounts of Russia Today and Sputnik– both controlled by the Russian state–have proven extremely influential throughout the country. Bret Schafer, a fellow with the Alliance for Securing Democracy who studies Russian disinformation, has concluded that “every negative story or issue that has come out about a U.S.-made vaccine is amplified, while [Russian state media outlets] flood the zone with any positive report about the Russian vaccine.” This influential campaign, different from previous manifestations of Russian disinformation, has not relied on posting false information; rather, it hinges upon the selective promotion of news items that manipulate and/or dodge the truth.
Mexico’s inability to procure Western-made vaccines, its failure to efficiently distribute the vaccines that it possesses, and the misinformation being spread around the country have all fostered the use of Sputnik V in Mexico, and in turn, helped amplify Moscow’s disinformation campaign.
Bolivia, Nicaragua, Paraguay, and Venezuela
The influence of Russian disinformation and promotion of the Sputnik V vaccine has also reached various other countries in the region, including Bolivia, Nicaragua, Paraguay, and Venezuela.
Bolivia and Russia’s agreement for the Sputnik V vaccine was finalized in late December of last year, promising enough doses to immunize 2.6 million people. It was the second country to roll out the Russian vaccine in the region, after Argentina. Bolivia has suffered approximately 26,056 cases and 12,015 deaths related to COVID-19. So far, it has administered over 150,000 doses of the vaccine, equivalent to 1.3 doses per 100 people. La Paz has also struggled to secure Western vaccines, though it was eventually able to secure deals with both AstraZeneca and Sinopharm for several million doses.
Nicaragua–which has a history of political ties to Russia–approved the Sputnik V vaccine for emergency use in early February. The country quickly negotiated a deal to acquire the Sputnik V vaccine, with the first doses arriving later that month. The deep political ties between the two countries have fomented a relationship between their respective governments, with the Ortega administration granting Russia permission to start producing the vaccines at local Nicaraguan facilities. Data on the current cases and deaths related to COVID-19 is not readily available, as the Ortega government has failed to provide such information.
Paraguay joins the long list of Latin American countries that have struggled to secure COVID-19 vaccines. Early last month, the country’s health minister announced that Paraguay was expecting a small batch of 4,000 Sputnik V vaccine doses, part of its agreed purchase of one million doses. Currently, Paraguay is only distributing Sputnik V vaccines to its frontline health workers, with around 12,820 doses administered. The current level of vaccination is 0.2 doses per 100 people.
Venezuela, like Paraguay, is currently only administering Sputnik V vaccines after the country received its first 100,000 doses in February. The Venezuelan government has shared that they expect to receive 10 million doses of the vaccine, although this figure has not been confirmed by Russia. Much like Nicaragua, there is doubt surrounding the actual number of cases and deaths in the country; authorities in the country have reported 132,259 cases. Venezuela has administered 12,194 vaccines, less than 0.1 doses per 100 people.
Bolivia, Nicaragua, Paraguay, and Venezuela have all been subjected to the surge of disinformation surrounding COVID-19 and the vaccines developed to combat it. The use of and demand for the Sputnik V vaccine–similarly observed in Mexico–can be attributed to their inability to secure Western vaccines, but also to Russia’s campaign to discredit them. The strong ties between these countries and Russia allow for the further spread of Moscow’s disinformation campaign.
The fatal concoction
The inability of Western countries to participate in the equitable distribution of vaccines to countries with significantly less productive and economic resources—paired with a targeted Russian disinformation campaign geared to discredit Western vaccines and promote Sputnik V, masked as goodwill—has led Latin American countries to turn away from the U.S. and move toward Russia instead. Beyond COVID-19, this shift could signal a troubling redistribution of both economic and diplomatic power in the Western Hemisphere. In order to regain the moral high ground, the U.S. must reframe the vaccine conversation around science, specifically the importance of clinical trials. Government and public officials must also work to identify and stop the spread of false or misleading stories.
Most importantly, the Biden administration must actively begin to make good on its promise to help supply Latin American countries with vaccine doses, especially as it becomes increasingly clear that the U.S.—a country that possesses many more doses than it needs—will have the vast majority of its population vaccinated by the beginning of summer. To Latin American countries, discouraged by predictions that they will lack herd immunity until 2023, the U.S. timeline and reluctance to share vaccines have sown great distrust in a global power that claims to protect its regional neighbors. The U.S. has missed what could have been a massive opportunity to recover the trust of its Latin American neighbors and must strive to rectify this error in the future.
Ezequiel Carman is an Argentine lawyer and global health and trade policy consultant. Previously, he served as a legal advisor for the Ministry of Justice of Buenos Aires and as an assistant professor in international public law at Universidad Católica. Most recently, he worked as a research assistant for the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law. You can connect with him on LinkedIn or via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
India Kirssin is a student at Elon University studying International Relations and Spanish with a concentration on Latin America. You can reach her on LinkedIn and via email at email@example.com.
Lourdes Argenal is a student at Tulane University studying Political Science with a concentration in international relations. You can connect with her on LinkedIn or via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.