According to some Russian state media outlets, the AztraZeneca vaccine is unsafe and might turn you into a monkey. As interesting as that idea is, before going full-tilt Planet of the Apes we turn first to another prominent theme of Russian disinformation this week: the poisoning of Russian opposition politician Aleksei Navalny.
This summer Navalny almost died on the campaign trail. After falling ill on a plane, he was hospitalized in a coma and later transferred to a German military hospital where traces of Novichok were found in his system. Novichok is a poison that has been used by the Soviet Union to silence dissidents and critics, most prominently in the Salisbury case in 2018, in which a Russian double agent living in the UK was poisoned and nearly died along with his daughter.
Navalny, however, did not die. Instead, he emerged from his coma a few thousand kilometers from where he fell. Soon he picked up the opposition flag again and started railing anew against the government of Vladimir Putin. In the meantime the investigative consortium Bellingcat, along with its media partners, carried out a thorough investigation into the identities of the perpetrators. This week the findings were finally published and can be read here.
The conclusion of the investigation was clear: Russian FSB were behind the attempted assassination of Navalny, having tailed him for years around the country. That elicits the assumption that Putin must have either ordered the attack or at least condoned it. Who else could possibly have given the green-light to an entire unit following Navalny for at least three years to make an attempt on life?
Russian Media Response: Allegations are a Political Attack
In news items and broadcasts aimed at domestic audiences, Kremlin-affiliated media did not initially mention the report at all, says BBC correspondent Steve Rosenberg, who conducted an overview of the Russian newspapers in the aftermath.
For audiences abroad, however, the report was covered in bellicose fashion by Russian state-controlled media. Sputnik, for instance, wrote a piece about the report being made to “destroy Russia’s Nordstream 2”: a new gas pipeline running from Russia to Europe. The article quoted such figures as Dr. Ludwig Watzal, a “journalist and editor” who mostly writes op-eds on such topics as 9/11 being a “propaganda-coup” and defending people accused of antisemitism. For this report, he said that the people who stood to gain from the findings of Bellingcat and Co were the enemies of Russia.
“Biden,” the article states, “is not the only one to potentially profit from the Bellingcat inquiry: all so-called political elites in the West that are overwhelmingly anti-Russian and anti-Putin are likely to benefit from a poisoning narrative.” It also quoted a Belgian human rights activist, Andy Vermaut, who said the report was based on "pretentious research" and was being used "to try to shut down Nord Stream 2”.
IranWire reached out to Mr Vermaut, asking whether or not his views were represented accurately in the article, to which he replied: “Where is the effective evidence that Novichok is involved? This has been requested several times now. There is still no proof. The Russian leadership has even asked the OPCW. Would you please share the test results publicly?
“This pretentious research will of course be used again to try to shut down Nordstream 2. Sanctions against Russia are hip for some. Meanwhile, they let Turkey and Azerbaijan commit war crimes. That is no problem at all.”
Vermaut does have a point about the results of tests conducted by the German hospital not being made public. For this reason, IranWire contacted the German government for comment. A government spokesperson replied that they would not share the “laboratory findings of this case” because, as they had stated in October, “there must be no chance of knowledge about the dangerous substance falling into the wrong hands.”
In other words the complete findings are not being published because, the German government says, they could give hostile actors a possibility to create Novichok or something similar for a repeat performance. It is also worth pointing out that the thrust of the findings by Bellingcat, CNN, Der Spiegal and The Insider was not about the poison used, but the fact that the would-be poisoners were allegedly FSB agents.
In other words, the Sputnik article has taken something very real (the fact that the discovery might hurt Russian interests, including the Nord Stream 2 project, then ties it with “expert” analysis positioning this as the motivation behind it. It then spins this into an article whose core argument is that the investigation was carried out by Western actors actively trying to spoil something for Russia. All the while, it diverts from the facts: Navalny was in all likelihood poisoned, he was (we now know) very likely poisoned by FSB agents and it was very likely an attempted assassination by the Russian state. The idea that the report about Navalny’s poisoning should be an attempt to disrupt a Russian project rests on a logical fallacy: that because something might hurt Russian, its sole purpose is to hurt Russia.
This is also not the first time Sputnik has tried to frame a set of provable events as a covert operation against Russia. The entire Nagorno-Karabakh war was, for instance, an attempt to bring the war to Russia’s doorstep, according to Spanish Sputnik.
Will the Earth be Taken Over by Humans Turned into Monkeys?
It will not. But that has not stopped Russian propagandists from claiming that the Oxford University-AstraZeneca vaccine being developed in the UK will turn people into apes. A series of related internet memes – including images portraying Boris Johnson as bigfoot and a doctored version of the classic “Uncle Sam” poster, stating “I WANT YOU to take monkey vaccine” – circulated last week online and were picked up by Russian TV channels, in an apparent bid to spread fear and confusion among the populace.
The head of Russia’s sovereign wealth fund was among those to have referred to the AstraZeneca vaccine as a “monkey vaccine” in TV interviews. This was not without some irony given that on Friday, December 11, the fund would announce it was partnering with AstraZeneca to test the Russian-made Sputnik V vaccine.
The inspiration for this baseless claim is the fact that, in line with other vaccines including the Russian one, the AstraZenica vaccine uses a common cold virus derived from chimpanzees as a “vehicle” to deliver the genetic material from coronavirus into the vaccine. Rob Swanda, a Ph.D. student in biochemistry at the University of Cornell, explains that this does not mean any of the vaccines will turn people into monkeys. Not Sputnik V, not AztraZeneca, nor the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines.
At the core of the misunderstanding is the idea that RNA vaccines – or vaccines, like those of Pfizer and Moderna, which use man-made copies of a natural chemical called messenger RNA to trigger an immune response – could change the structure of a person’s DNA. When Swanda’s parents came to him with concerns about RNA vaccines altering human DNA, he was drawn into the debate. He made and posted an explanatory video that gained 3 million views in which he showed why there is no reason to be worried about this.
“In our bodies,” says Swanda, “the flow of genetic information goes from DNA to RNA to the proteins. It does not go the other way. DNA is located in the nucleus of the cell, and RNA will not go there. Even on the tiniest slight off-chance that it could get in, the molecules are different and can’t interact.”
When asked to explain the relationship to a hopeless journalist through a metaphor, Swanda says that DNA is like a tiger, while RNA is a housecat. They are both animals, but they don’t live in the same environment, and even if the cat is introduced into the jungle, the tiger will most likely kill it or scare it away. The cat, meanwhile, would not change, destroy, or have offspring with the tiger. DNA will not change because of RNA. Swanda does urge people who have health concerns about vaccines to consult with a doctor before getting a vaccine, though.