Tag Archives: vaccines

The Guardian’s Anti-Russian Vax Propaganda plunges to New Depths

What a f****ing disgrace! I did develop a bit of a potty mouth while in the army, but I generally refrain from bad language on this blog. But there are times when it just spontaneously spews out in disgust at the sheer utter revolting vileness of the British press.

I know. It’s always been bad. But one could distinguish between the likes of The Sun and The Mirror on the one hand, and the more serious ‘broadsheet’ press on the other, treating the former not so as newspapers but as a type of entertainment while expecting some degree of seriousness from the latter. Alas, those days are long gone, especially when it comes to all things Russian. Instead of honest reporting, what we get from too much of the British press is a torrent of extreme Russophobic propaganda masquerading as news. It is truly a f***ing disgrace.

What brought on this rant? The answer is an article in today’s copy of The Guardian about Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine. Even by the rotten standards of The Guardian it plummets the depths of propagandistic nastiness, serving no purpose other than to incite hatred of Russia, while doing its darndest to undermine worldwide efforts to get us out of the covid pandemic. We’ve seen many (invalid) complaints about Russia spreading anti-vax propaganda. Well, here here we British anti-vax propaganda of the basest kind. It kind of makes you want to vomit.

The gist of the article is summed up in the headline and subtitle: ‘Is Russia’s Covid vaccine anything more than a political weapon? Observers say the Sputnik V jab is aimed more at sowing political division than fighting coronavirus.’

WTF? I mean, really. WTF? Russian researchers really went to all the effort of developing a coronavirus vaccine so that they could ‘sow political division’ in the West? Listen to yourself speaking, man. Are you serious?

Unfortunately, author Jon Henley is, and embarks on a long explanation of just how vile the Russians are for having developed a solution to a worldwide plague.

To do this, Henley resorts to one of the techniques for writing bad articles I mentioned in a recent post – namely, citing a bunch of people who agree with the narrative he’s trying to spread, while ignoring any other voices or alternative explanations. It’s a hatchet job, pure and simple, designed to discredit both Sputnik V and the Russian Federation.

The article, in other words, is just one Russophobic comment piled up on another – Bam, bam, bam. Take that, Sputnik V! What it isn’t is fair and balanced reporting.

So it is that Henley starts us off with a statement that

Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine has yet to win EU regulatory approval and is likely to play little part in the bloc’s rollout, but it has already achieved what some observers say is one of its objectives – sowing division among, and within, member states. “Sputnik V has become a tool of soft power for Russia,” said Michal Baranowski, a fellow with a US thinktank, the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “It’s planted its flag on the vaccine and the political goal of its strategy is to divide the west.”

Baranowski’s evidence for this claim? He doesn’t provide any. Of course, he doesn’t. It doesn’t exist. Has anybody associated with the Russian government or the Sputnik vaccine ever stated such an objective? No. Baranowski’s accusation is entirely speculation on his behalf.

But Henley thinks that there is some evidence, and so brings out his second quote, this time from an EU official:

“Russia’s low vaccination rate just doesn’t tally with it having a supposedly cheap, easy-to-make and effective vaccine,” one EU diplomat said. “Either Moscow’s being altruistic, which seems unlikely. Or it’s prioritising geopolitics over Russians’ needs.”

This is just BS. Total utter BS. Putting aside the idea that Russians are incapable of altruism, if Henley spent even a micro-second checking, he’d discover that a) Russia does have a ‘cheap, easy-to-make and effective vaccine’, and b) the reason for the low vaccination rate in Russia is not that Russia is ‘prioritising geopolitics over Russians’ needs’, by for instance sending vaccines abroad while not distributing them at home, but a reluctance by Russians to take the vaccine. In Moscow, for instance, the vaccine is freely available for all, and has been for some time, but only about 10% of the city has bothered getting a shot. You can walk into the GUM shopping mall any time you like and get the vaccine. I’ve read that the line-ups are minimal. People just aren’t doing it.

That means that there are some genuine criticisms that can make of the Russian government’s handling of the covid crisis. It has done a very poor PR job persuading its population of the merits of getting vaccinated. But the accusation that it is favouring geopolitics over its own people’s needs is just plain false.

Henley, however, ploughs on regardless, wheeling out his third rent-a-quote, the Prime Minister of Lithuania, telling us that:

The prime minister of Lithuania, Ingrida Šimonytė, tweeted in February that Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, saw the shot not so much as a “cure for the Russian people” as “another hybrid weapon to divide and rule.”

Well, if the Prime Minister of Lithuania says it, it must be true. Right?

To make sure we’re on ball, Henley next casts some doubt on the efficacy of Sputnik-V, though deigning to cite Russian health officials rebutting such doubts. But whether Sputnik works well or not isn’t really Henley’s topic. It could be 100% effective but still a bad thing, he implies, because it’s ‘dividing’ Europe (which is obviously more important than health issues – I find the callousness of the approach at this point rather startling). Thus the article tells us:

Whether or not the EMA –[European Medical Agency] approves Sputnik V and whether or not it ever arrives in sufficient numbers, observers argue it has already done significant damage, with EU national and regional leaders leveraging it for their own political ends. In some countries, it has caused mayhem: the Slovakian prime minister, Igor Matovič, was forced to resign this month amid a bitter dispute over a secret deal to buy 2m doses despite the disagreement of many in his four-party coalition. … Sputnik has also cost the health and foreign ministers of the Czech Republic – both opposed to the shot’s deployment without EMA approval – their jobs, fired by the prime minister, Andrej Babiš …  In Germany … three states including Bavaria have either struck or are negotiating Sputnik deals.

Obviously, Moscow somehow planned this all along! As if. And in any case, so what? Everyone and his dog is saying that EU’s vaccine program has been a mess. If states seek to go around it and vaccinate their people by getting Sputnik-V, isn’t that a good thing? But no, not for Mr Henley, who returns to his original source, writing that:

For Baranowski, Sputnik’s rushed approval, online propaganda and carefully selected destinations add up to a Russian strategy that is “neither innocent nor humanitarian. It is part of exactly the same game, of dividing the west, that we see in Moscow’s use of military power, cybersecurity, energy security.”

And it’s working, he said: “It’s dividing various European actors pretty well. Until Sputnik V has EMA approval – at which stage, of course, there’s no problem: the world needs vaccines – it’s become a political litmus test for whether you are for or against the EU’s programme. That’s eroding confidence. And that’s what Putin wants.”

 Ah, yes. ‘That’s what Putin wants’. Which is odd, because he’s never said so, nor given any indication that that’s what he’s thinking. But it seems as if Mr Baranowski has a means of getting inside Putin’s head. One of those Russian ‘directed energy weapons’ redesigned for a new purpose, maybe?

This isn’t serious reporting. It’s just an unsubstantiated thesis, with the author making up for the lack of concrete evidence by throwing in a bunch of quotes from hostile witnesses. It’s hateful. Insofar as it increase vaccine scepticism and may hinder the use of what appears to be a very successful medical product, it is also harmful. By publishing this, The Guardian has plunged so deep, it’s gone even beyond the lower depths. Shame on you, Guardian. Shame.

On Weaponizing cats and vaccines

It’s Christmas time, so it must be silly season.

Several years ago, the Moon in Alabama blog produced a long list of things that Russia and Vladimir Putin have been said to have ‘weaponized’. There are too many to mention them all, but they include such things as immigrants, robotic cockroaches, the weather, Photoshop, and language. A later updated list added items such as humour, incompetence, and giant squids. Today, we can now introduce a new member to the weaponized family: cats.

Yes, it wouldn’t be the internet without cats. Russian president Vladimir Putin no doubt likes them ‘white and fluffy‘.

‘White and fluffy’

Anyway, it turns out that cats are Russia’s latest weapon in the war for international hearts and minds. According to Michael Cole, author of an article entitled ‘December in Russia: A Special Breed of Disinformation’, the Russians have discovered that it’s ‘important to craft a likeable, if not loveable, image of yourself that people who find all that political talk rather mundane can get on board with.’ And so they’ve turned to cats.

Cole’s evidence: Russians building the bridge linking Crimea to mainland Russia adopted a cat they called ‘Mostik’ as their mascot. As Cole says:

Whether it’s meeting up with the Crimean baseball team, celebrating the New Year or hanging out with his old friends on the building site, Mostik is certainly a much cuter and cuddlier face of illegal annexation than the one we’re used to reading about on Western news sites. These days he’s rarely photographed without a trusty press pass around his neck, helping him to get all the latest inside scoops on the kind of feel-good stories that distract from some of the harsher realities of life on the occupied peninsula. No wonder Vladimir Putin was happy to let Mostik cross the completed bridge ahead of him on the day of the official opening ceremony back in May 2018.

Mostik

Cats as a ‘distraction’ from the ‘harsher realities’ of life in Crimea?? Those Russians are fiends! If only Ukraine had thought of that, we’d have been saved a lot of trouble.

Beyond Mostik, Cole can only produce one other example of the Kremlin’s supposed cat obsession – references to the unfortunate fate of Sergei Skripal’s cat, whom the British police left to die of dehydration and starvation after its owner was poisoned. Despite that, though, he concludes that, ‘cats are fast becoming Vladimir Putin’s political animals of choice.’

I’m assuming that Cole’s piece is meant to be slightly tongue in cheek. The problem is that one never knows nowadays. But definitely not joking is British journalist Sara Hurst, who drops the following bombshell in her latest article this week.

When I heard the news that AstraZeneca was going to work with Russia’s Gamaleya Centre to test combinations of the Oxford coronavirus vaccine and the Sputnik V vaccine, I was devastated. I felt betrayed by a prestigious scientific team that was supposed to be winning over the vaccine skeptics. … I have been in the Oxford trial, a joint project with AstraZeneca to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, since early June. I’ve had two doses of either the vaccine or the placebo. I was very enthusiastic to help develop a safe and effective vaccine. … But in response to the collaboration with the Russians, I have withdrawn from the trial. 

Come again, Sara. You what?? You quit the trial because the British researchers involved want to work with the Russians to produce a better vaccine? How does that make sense? Isn’t making a better vaccine something we should all want?

Not if it involves Russia, apparently. You see, Sara says that when it comes to vaccines, she ‘wanted to help create a genuine one’, and Russia’s Sputnik-V isn’t. It’s an ‘informational painkiller for the soul’, which she suspects doesn’t work. In any case, it’s wrong to take anything from Russia. There are ‘ethical issues of collaborating in any way with Putin’s murderous regime.’ ‘I am furious that instead of working to bring more of Putin’s killers to justice, some in the West apparently want to reward him,’ says Ms Hurst.

So she doesn’t like the Russian government. I’m fine with that. Many of the criticisms directed against it are entirely fair. But we’re talking about a major international health crisis here. The United Kingdom has just gone into full scale lockdown, and much of the rest of the world has blocked travellers from the UK from entering their countries. The UK needs an effective vaccine. Trying to block it is absurd.

Ms Hurst says that she doesn’t understand AstraZeneca’s decision to team up with the Russians. ‘I think they just see an opportunity to save money by perhaps giving people the Oxford vaccine after a dose of Sputnik. But I don’t really know what they’re up to,’ she says.

But she’s a journalist. It’s her job to check these things, and it’s not hard to find out the logic behind the British decision. Both the Oxford and Sputnik-V vaccines involve two injections, but the British found that if both doses were of equal strength, the vaccine was less effective. This could be because the first was in some way creating some sort of immunity to the second. And from this, researchers drew the conclusion that it might be better to use two different vectors for the two injections, i.e. first Oxford then Sputnik, or vice versa.

Will that work? I don’t know. Nor does AstraZeneca. But it’s worth a shot. Why not do some trials and see what happens? If it doesn’t help, there’s nothing lost. But if it has some positive results, then lives will be saved, and we can all return to normality a little earlier. What could possible be wrong with that?

AstraZeneca’s decision has nothing to do with ‘rewarding’ Putin. It’s a medical decision, pure and simple. And it makes a lot of sense. But no, we must not, says Sara Hurst, make the ‘mistake time and time again to trust Putin.’

I can’t remember how many times I’ve read that Russia is promoting anti-vaccination disinformation. But here we see how anti-vax propaganda is quite all right if it’s directed against Russia. As I said, it’s silly season indeed.

Sickening

I read something recently which said that about half of all postings on social media are automatically generated (by so-called ‘bots’). You can bet your bottom dollar that every issue of social importance is being debated on the internet. That means that there are going to be a lot of bot-generated links to the matter in question. And, it goes without saying, some of those will have been generated by somebody in Russia. I say this just to point out that whatever the issue, if it’s important then it’s pretty much certain that you’ll find something about it on the internet that you can trace back to Russia. So if your measure of whether ‘Russia’ is pushing an issue, or is responsible for swaying public opinion on a given matter, is that Russian-based accounts have posted something on the subject, then there is absolutely nothing you can’t hold Russia responsible for.

Of course, regardless of the question, there will also be bots and trolls, and even genuine, ordinary people, commenting on it from America, and Canada, and England, and France, and Germany, and who knows where else. But for some reason, nobody ever holds them responsible. Russians are involved – it’s their fault. Forget about everybody else.

And so it is that in the past couple of weeks, a plethora of articles have appeared blaming Russia for, of all things, measles. As is well known, the disease has made a comeback in recent years, largely as a result of a significant reduction in vaccinations. It turns out that some Russian-based social media accounts have forwarded or provided links to anti-vaccination messages. Ergo, the revival of measles is Russia’s fault.

One of the most egregious examples of this logic appears in an article in the respect medical journal The Lancet. This blames an upsurge of measles in Ukraine firmly on Russia. In 2008, 95% of Ukrainian babies were vaccinated against measles. By 2016, this figure had fallen to 31%, ‘among the lowest in the world’. Vaccinations for Hepatitis B have similarly collapsed. Last year there were 23,000 cases of measles in Ukraine, about half the entire European total. The Lancet links this to the war in Donbass and also comments that, research ‘concluded that Russian trolls promoted discord and, masquerading as legitimate users, created a false impression that arguments for and against vaccination were equiposed. The result has been an erosion of public consensus on the value of vaccine programmes.’ The inference is clear: Russia is to blame for the massive outbreak of measles in Ukraine.

In fact, the research in question analyzes the Twitter hashtag #VaccinateUS, which was allegedly produced by the Russian ‘troll farm’, the Internet Research Agency. The research shows that this hashtag was associated with 253 posts, slightly more of which were pro-vaccine than anti. It also notes that ‘accounts the US Congress identifies as Russian trolls were significantly more likely to tweet about vaccine-preventable illnesses (e.g. Zika) but not necessarily about vaccines. Finally, traditional spambots (designed to be recognizable as bots) were significantly less likely to tweet about vaccine-preventable illnesses than was the average Twitter user.’ This hardly suggests that Russian bots are the no. 1 anti-vaccine propagandists. Moreover, it’s hard to see the link between #Vaccinate US and Ukraine.

As The Lancet notes, ‘the precipitous fall in vaccination level [in Ukraine] began after 2008’. The supposed link to the war in Donbass is therefore irrelevant, as this process began long before that. Moreover, the Internet Research Agency wasn’t even founded till 2013, so I can’t see how it had any influence on plummeting vaccination levels in Ukraine before then. Added to that, as a graphic on Ukrainian vaccination rates on Anatoly Karlin’s blog shows, vaccination levels  have shot up since 2016, at which point not only was war waging in Donbass, but Russian bots were supposedly working their hardest. In short, there is no correlation with Russian bot activity and falling vaccination levels, and so no good reason to link measles in Ukraine to Russia. This, however, has not stopped the likes of RFE/RL from running articles suggesting that the opposite might be true.

And now, here in Canada, as we suffer an outbreak of measles in British Columbia, our very own Marcus Kolga has come forward to tell us who is to blame. In an article in yesterday’s Toronto Star, he tells us that ‘Russian disinformation is attacking our democracy and making us sick.’ According to Kolga,

As our information environment continues to be poisoned by Kremlin bots and trolls, it turns out that they’re also making us sick, literally. … Since 2014, the Kremlin has developed, distributed and amplified antivaccination conspiracy theories, urging parents not to allow their children to be vaccinated against life threatening illnesses, including measles. This has created a global health crisis.

There are some highly questionable assertions here. The first is that all Russian bots and trolls are ‘Kremlin bots and trolls’. Kolga produces no information to support the claim that this is a ‘Kremlin’ plot. The second is that Kremlin is developing and spreading anti-vaccine conspiracy theories and ‘urging parents’ not to vaccinate their children. Actually, as shown above, alleged Russian messages tend to favour vaccines more than oppose them. The third is that it is specifically Kremlin bots who have ‘created a global health crisis’. This is blatantly untrue. The current crisis has its origins in a 1998 article by British doctor Andrew Wakefield, which linked the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine to autism. Since then, the fear of vaccines has developed a life of its own, spread by vast numbers of people, most of whom have nothing to do with Russia. Even if it’s true that some Russian bots have spread anti-vaccine messages, nobody has yet shown that these constitute more than a tiny drop in the ocean of overall anti-vax propaganda. To say that Russian bots have ‘created a global health crisis’ is preposterous.

As for Canada, the current measles outbreak has been traced to the family of one Emmanuel Bilodeau, whose 11-year old son caught measles on a holiday to Vietnam. Bilodeau told the CBC that, ‘We worried 10-12 years ago because there was a lot of debate around the MMR vaccine. Doctors were coming out with research connecting the MMR vaccine with autism. So we were a little concerned.’ So this outbreak derives from a decision made eleven years ago. How then is it a product of Russian bots and trolls, none of whom, as far as anybody has yet claimed, was saying anything about measles at that point?

Connecting Russia to measles is fearmongering, pure and simple. And as the anti-vaccination issue has shown us, fearmongering is bad for the health. To quote Marcus Kolga, it ‘makes us sick’. Indeed.