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The U.S. State Department said that Russian websites are fueling misinformation about authorized COVID-19 vaccines. Joe Raedle/Getty Images
  • COVID-19 vaccines are safe, effective, and no shortcuts were taken that could affect safety.
  • But the U.S. State Department finds that Russian websites are fueling misinformation about authorized COVID-19 vaccines.
  • The websites involved have questioned the efficacy of the vaccines and exaggerated the risk of side effects.

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Russian intelligence agencies are using online platforms to undermine confidence in COVID-19 vaccines being used in the United States, State Department officials said.

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported March 7 on this misinformation campaign.

An additional report from the Alliance for Securing Democracy found that during the COVID-19 pandemic, Russia along with other countries including Iran have tried to portray their response to the outbreak as superior to that of the United States and other western governments.

The U.S. State Department’s Global Engagement Center identified three Russian websites — New Eastern Outlook, News Front, and Oriental Review — that are spreading this misinformation and are linked to Russian intelligence.

Much of the misinformation is aimed at undermining confidence in Western vaccines, such as those developed by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna-NIAID.

The websites involved have questioned the efficacy of the vaccines, exaggerated the risk of side effects, and claimed that the vaccines were rushed through the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval process, the WSJ reported.

Some of the misinformation relied on actual news reports, but presented it without the broader context of data showing that the vaccines are safe and effective.

The campaign against the widely used Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is likely due to its potential competition against Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, a report by the Alliance for Securing Democracy said.

This misinformation campaign comes as the vaccine rollout continues across the United States. Recent polling, though, suggests that public willingness to be vaccinated is on the rise.

Still, health officials face an ongoing fight against the spread of COVID-19 misinformation — some of it perpetuated by the algorithms of social media sites such as Instagram.

Dr. H. Dirk Sostman, president of the Houston Methodist Academic Institute, said the COVID-19 vaccines approved by the FDA have far exceeded the 50 percent efficacy bar set by the agency last fall.

“A year ago we didn’t know if [COVID-19] vaccines would work at all, how effective they would be, or how long it would take to produce them,” he said. “Now we have three FDA-authorized vaccines, with at least two more likely to be authorized this year.”

In clinical trials, two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna-NIAID vaccines had an efficacy against symptomatic COVID-19 of over 90 percent.

More recent studies suggest that the real-world effectiveness of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is also high — 94 percent in an Israel study, and 88 percent in a UK study.

The third vaccine approved for use in the United States, developed by Johnson & Johnson’s subsidiary company Janssen Biotech, showed an efficacy of about 66 percent against moderate to severe COVID-19 in clinical trials.

Sostman cautions against comparing the efficacy results from different clinical trials, because the trials were done at different times, with different coronavirus variants in the community, and often with different definitions of outcomes.

“In clinical trials, the J&J vaccine had lower efficacy for preventing any symptomatic disease,” he said, “but it is comparable to the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines for preventing serious disease, keeping people out of the hospital, and keeping people from dying.”

One of the biggest concerns about the effectiveness of these vaccines, said Sostman, is what effect the variants will have on the vaccine’s performance.

B.1.351, a variant first identified in South Africa, appears to reduce the effectiveness of some vaccines. Testing suggests that other variants, though, may not have much of an effect on certain vaccines.

More studies are being done to understand how the vaccines stand up to the variants. In addition, vaccine makers are working on booster shots that directly target these variants.

Vaccinating as many people as possible and as quickly as possible can also help slow the development of new variants of concern.

“As the number of infected people — who can serve as ‘living Petri dishes’ for viral evolution — decreases, so will the rate at which we see [new] viral variants,” said Sostman. “Thus, getting the population immunized rapidly is going to be very important.”

The most common side effects seen in the clinical trials of COVID-19 vaccines have been local reactions, such as pain or redness near the site of injection, and systemic reactions such as headache, fatigue, muscle pain, and fever.

While some of these are similar to COVID-19 symptoms, the vaccines don’t cause COVID-19.

The vaccines don’t contain any live coronavirus, so it’s impossible to develop COVID-19 due to a vaccination.

Instead, the vaccines train the immune system to recognize and respond to the coronavirus if it encounters it later.

The side effects of the vaccines are a sign that the vaccine has stimulated an immune response.

However, everyone’s reaction to the vaccine is different, so the absence of side effects after vaccination doesn’t mean the vaccine isn’t working.

Sostman said the main concerning side effect seen after the vaccines were rolled out to the public are rare cases of severe allergic reaction, or anaphylaxis, after vaccination.

This has occurred only in a small number of cases — 11.1 cases per million doses administered for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine; 2.5 cases per million doses administered for the Moderna-NIAID vaccine.

“This is slightly more common than is seen with the flu vaccine,” Sostman said. However, “these reactions can be treated and there are no reports of anyone dying from them.”

As a precaution, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that people who have previously had a severe allergic reaction or an immediate allergic reaction to any vaccine ingredient not get that vaccine.

People who have had other kinds of severe allergic reactions should be monitored by vaccination site staff for at least 30 minutes after getting the vaccine. Everyone else should be monitored for at least 15 minutes.

In the vaccine trials, there were a small number of cases of Bell’s palsy, a type of facial paralysis, in people who received the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna-NIAID vaccine. There were also a few blood clotting cases in people who received the J&J vaccine.

“These other reported effects have not been more frequent than their background incidence in the general population,” said Sostman, “so there is thus far no basis for concluding that they are due to vaccination.”

The CDC and FDA will continue to monitor the safety of COVID-19 vaccines after they’re released.

People who have been vaccinated can report possible side effects using the federal government’s V-safe smartphone app and the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS).

While much attention has been given to how quickly the COVID-19 vaccines were developed, scientists have been studying pandemic coronaviruses and vaccines to protect against them for over a decade.

“Sometimes people think these vaccines just popped out of nowhere over a period of 4 months,” Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of Baylor College of Medicine’s National School of Tropical Medicine, told MSNBC in December.

“This is not a 4-month process. This is a 17-year process. The discovery and development of vaccines for coronavirus began 17 years ago after SARS emerged in 2003. That was the first big pandemic coronavirus,” Hotez explained.

This is when scientists identified the coronavirus spike protein as a possible target for a vaccine, said Hotez. All coronaviruses share a similar spike protein, which the virus uses to infect cells.

So when Chinese researchers publicly posted the genetic sequence in January 2020 for the novel coronavirus or SARS-CoV-2 that causes COVID-19, vaccine scientists were able to build on existing knowledge and vaccine technology.

Some of the “new” vaccine technologies being used for COVID-19 vaccines is not new at all and has been in laboratory testing and clinical trials for years.

The AstraZeneca-Oxford, Johnson & Johnson, and other COVID-19 vaccines are based on an adenovirus vector vaccine platform. These use a modified cold virus to deliver coronavirus genes to the body, which trains the immune system to recognize and attack the coronavirus.

Vaccine developers started developing adenovirus vector vaccines in the early 2000s for diseases such as AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis, with several clinical trials since then using this platform.

Another newer technology is the messenger RNA (mRNA) platform used by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna-NIAID for their COVID-19 vaccines.

These deliver the genetic instructions — in the form of mRNA — for the coronavirus spike protein to the cells, where it stimulates an immune response.

Research on mRNA vaccines began in the early 1990s. Since then, laboratory and clinical trials have been carried out using this platform to protect against diseases such as Ebola, Zika, and influenza.

Scientists were able to work quickly to develop candidate COVID-19 vaccines. But clinical trials — which measured the vaccines’ safety and efficacy — ran at their usual pace.

These “were as large and as careful as any that have been done for other vaccines,” said Sostman.

One factor that sped the development of COVID-19 vaccines was the massive amount of government and other funding. This allowed scientists and vaccine makers to focus on these vaccines, and encouraged companies to start producing doses early.

The “main time saver,” said Sostman, was having the drug companies gear up for production before the FDA had approved the vaccines. “That was the result of government guarantees to purchase authorized vaccines,” he said.