“It’s striking how similar the techniques [are] that Fox News uses to frighten people about the U.S. vaccination campaign and those that The New York Times, Reuters and others use to scare people about Chinese vaccines.” — Jim Naureckas, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting
WASHINGTON — “Hundreds of Thai medical workers infected despite Sinovac vaccinations,” ran Reuters’ bombshell headline earlier this month. The report detailed how 618 Thai medical workers inoculated with the Chinese COVID vaccine have become infected anyway, leading to one death. As is common with such an influential newswire, Reuters’ story was picked up across the world by hundreds of publications, including The Washington Post, Yahoo! News and The New York Post.
Yet the article also notes that over 677,000 Thai medical workers have received the dose, meaning that more than 99.9% of those vaccinated have not developed COVID-19 — a fact that flies in the face of the headline’s implications. A large majority of news consumers do not read past the title, meaning that they were given the false impression that Sinovac is ineffective.
Being fully vaccinated does not offer complete protection from COVID-19. In late June, CNBC noted that well over 4,000 vaccinated Americans had been hospitalized with the virus, including 750 who died. Yet Reuters spun the news into an opportunity to spread distrust of Sinovac in Thailand, which is currently living through a rapid and unprecedented spike in coronavirus cases.
The article also took the opportunity to present the U.S. government and American company Pfizer as saviors, noting that “Thailand is expecting a donation of 1.5 million Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines from the United States later this month.” Yet in a country of 70 million people this contribution is far from a solution. Reuters’ close links to both the U.S. government and to Pfizer make this framing seem particularly questionable. Jim Smith, chairman of the Thomson Reuters Foundation and former president and CEO of Thomson Reuters, is also on Pfizer’s board. Meanwhile, Reuters’ former global business director, Dawn Scalici, spent 33 years in the CIA, working her way up to senior director, overseeing the agency’s operations in Iraq. She left her job as National Intelligence Manager for the Western Hemisphere for the Director of National Intelligence to, in her own words, “advance Thomson Reuters’ ability to meet the disparate needs of the U.S. government.”
This is far from the first time that Reuters has pushed anti-vax paranoia against Chinese vaccines like Sinovac or Sinopharm. In January, they published an article titled “Peru volunteer in Sinopharm vaccine trial dies of COVID-19 pneumonia, university says.” Yet buried in the article is a statement from the university noting that the participant was in the control group, which received only a placebo, meaning that they had died because they didn’t receive the vaccine, not because they did, which was the clear implication of the headline.
In May, Reuters also printed a piece headlined “WHO experts voice ‘very low confidence’ in some Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccine data.” Yet reading the report, the WHO maintained that it had “overall confidence in [the vaccine’s] ability to prevent the disease.” The piece’s only gripe was that the testing phase did not include enough people from certain at-risk groups, such as pregnant women or the elderly, meaning that they had very little confidence that the trialing had categorically demonstrated that the vaccine was indisputably safe for certain people with comorbidities. What, however, would a lay person, unfamiliar with scientific terminology, take from that headline?
Last week, Reuters’ article “Sinovac’s vaccine finds supporters in Singapore despite effectiveness questions elsewhere,” claimed that the reason the island city-state was importing the Chinese vaccine was that “Singapore doesn’t want to upset Beijing,” rather than that it was an effective defense against a deadly virus.
And earlier this week, the influential newswire published an article headlined “Sinopharm’s COVID-19 shot induces weaker antibody responses to Delta — Study,” despite the fact that the university undertaking the experiment declared that, “This vaccine was found very effective for the Delta variant as well.” The doctor overseeing the study concluded that “when it comes to Delta and other variants, the Sinopharm vaccine induces similar levels of antibody responses as people who have naturally been infected, which is very good.” This was reported in Chinese media, but not by Reuters, whose article conveyed exactly the opposite message.
All the fake news that’s fit to print
Reuters is far from the only outlet seemingly on a crusade to discredit Sinopharm and Sinovac, however. Last year, The New York Times published an article titled “Brazil resumes Chinese vaccine trial after a brief suspension following the death of a volunteer.” Only in the penultimate paragraph did it inform readers that the person in question committed suicide. Unless the vaccine was supposed to have triggered this (which it did not assert), then the story’s premise is worthless. “Brazilian Man Commits Suicide” does not make the pages of the Times. Yet this incident proved worthy of two separate articles. It is not easy to see a reason beyond either irresponsible clickbait or active malicious intent behind the choice of headline and topic.
A recent Times exposé also heavily relied on innuendo to discredit China, its headline reading “They Relied on Chinese Vaccines. Now They’re Battling Outbreaks.” The article profiled a trio of countries — Bahrain, Mongolia and the Seychelles — that had bought and administered Sinopharm and Sinovac. “All three put their faith, at least in part, in easily accessible Chinese-made vaccines, which would allow them to roll out ambitious inoculation programs when much of the world was going without,” author Sui-Lee Wee wrote, constantly comparing them unfavorably with American-made ones; “But instead of freedom from the coronavirus, all three countries are now battling a surge in infections.”
But what the Times did not inform readers of was that the vast majority of serious or deadly cases in those countries happened to unvaccinated individuals. The Seychelles Ministry of Health confirmed as much and continues to implore people to take the Chinese vaccine, comfortable in the knowledge it is safe. As the Ministry of Health stated on Thursday, “Misinformation is prolonging the COVID-19 pandemic and can put lives in danger by leading people to make misinformed decisions.”
Enkhsaihan Lkhagvasuren, head of Public Health Policy Implementation for the Mongolian Health Ministry, made a similar statement, noting that 96% of recent COVID-19 deaths in his country occurred in individuals who were not fully vaccinated. Meanwhile, daily cases in Bahrain had already been plummeting for a month before Wee’s piece was published and now the country currently averages fewer than 100 new cases per day.
The New York Times has long cast aspersions about the dangers of the Chinese products, producing stories such as:
- “In Coronavirus Vaccine Race, China Strays From the Official Paths” (July 16, 2020);
- “China Gives Unproven Covid-19 Vaccines to Thousands, With Risks Unknown” (September 26);
- “Vaccine Unproven? No Problem in China, Where People Scramble for Shots” (November 17);
- “Chinese Covid-19 Vaccine Gets Key Push, but Doubts Swirl” (December 9);
- “Turkey and Brazil Say Chinese Vaccine Effective, With Sparse Supporting Data” (December 25);
- “China Has All It Needs to Vaccinate Millions, Except Any Approved Vaccines” (December 29);
- “Disappointing Chinese Vaccine Results Pose Setback for Developing World” (January 13);
- “China Wanted to Show Off Its Vaccines. It’s Backfiring” (January 25).
All of these were authored or co-authored by Wee, a journalist with no background in science or medicine, according to her bio on LinkedIn. And all relied on innuendos and conjecture to repeat the same overarching message.
The Washington Post has also denigrated what it sees as “China’s subpar shots,” with columnist Josh Rogin consistently pushing the dubious lab-leak hypothesis, even when other outlets were describing it as a baseless conspiracy theory.
Condemning vaccine skepticism at home, promoting it abroad
The New York Times has long condemned vaccine skepticism at home, castigating conservatives for their reluctance to get inoculated. Presenting the far-right as a direct threat to national security, in March the Times warned that “extremist organizations are now bashing the safety and efficacy of coronavirus vaccines in an effort to try to undermine the government.” “Mistrust of a coronavirus vaccine could imperil widespread immunity,” it worried in July 2020, adding that, “[b]illions are being poured into developing a shot, but the rapid timetable and President Trump’s cheerleading are creating a whole new group of vaccine-hesitant patients.”
Reuters, too, has presented itself as a pro-science organization, even running a fact checking department debunking rumors regarding vaccines. Yet an indication of how much care is taken over these can be gleaned from one fact check from June, which starts with the sentence “Refiling to correct typo in paragraph two and headline” — clearly a note from the writer to the editing team. For nearly a month it has stood uncorrected, suggesting that no one at the newswire read it, either before or after publishing.
“It’s striking how similar the techniques [are] that Fox News uses to frighten people about the U.S. vaccination campaign and those that The New York Times, Reuters and others use to scare people about Chinese vaccines,” Jim Naureckas, editor of media watchdog organization Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, told MintPress. “It’s not hard to take advantage of laypeople’s unfamiliarity with probability to make little dangers seem big. In both cases, though, media outlets are putting people’s lives at risk for a political purpose — in effect conducting germ warfare through psychological warfare,” he added.
There is no need for such mistrust. Both Sinopharm and Sinovac are inactivated virus vaccines which use inactivated or killed viral particles that cannot replicate. This method is one of the oldest and most established techniques, used by Jonas Salk to create his famous polio vaccine. The method is still used to make modern Hepatitis A and flu shots. Sinopharm and Sinovac contain proteins that the body’s immune system responds to, stimulating the production of anti-COVID antibodies, preparing it to fight off any real infection later. The vaccines were designed to be more effective against more severe cases of COVID-19, with studies showing both inventions to be sufficiently capable of preventing symptomatic infection and particularly useful in preventing hospitalizations.
A familiar foe
China is not the only foreign source of vaccines towards which Western corporate media have displayed profound hostility; the Russian Sputnik V vaccine has also drawn considerable skepticism. Reuters has published a slew of articles highlighting the supposed shortcomings of Sputnik, including a news brief noting that Brazil had rejected the vaccine. Yet this was published over a month after a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report boasted that among its best achievements of 2020 was combatting the “malign influence” of Russia in the Western hemisphere by pressuring the Brazilian government to shun Sputnik. When this was picked up by Brasil Wire and other local media, it caused a national scandal.
The Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), which owns the rights to Sputnik, described Reuters as carrying out a disinformation campaign through “false and inaccurate” reporting that is full of anonymous sources from the Western pharmaceutical lobby groups. Worthy of note here is that Reuters was secretly funded by the British government during the Cold War to run anti-Soviet propaganda and that leaked documents show that this close relationship continues to the present day. The U.K.’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office is working with the company on operations designed to “weaken Russia,” in their own words. That a similar deal regarding China could be in place is not out of the question.
The Washington Post has also displayed similar skepticism about vaccines coming from enemy countries. In an article entitled “The Russians and the Chinese are touting their vaccines. Should we trust them?” the newspaper allowed a scientist from rival vaccine maker Moderna to claim that we should take Russian and Chinese results “with two grains of salt,” seemingly confirming the RDIF’s accusations. The same Moderna source claimed that Russia would never allow its vaccine to be subject to an approval process by E.U. regulators, an assertion that was almost immediately disproven.
Like the Chinese vaccines, Sputnik’s effectiveness has been confirmed, with studies showing that it can boast a 92% efficiency rating.
Manufacturing a new enemy
The wave of skepticism over (foreign) vaccines is based not on science but rather on geopolitical considerations. In the last decade, China — and, to a lesser extent, Russia — have become the United States’ top international rivals. In 2011, the Obama administration began what it called the U.S.’ “pivot to Asia” — an attempt to encircle Beijing with military bases. Today, there are more than 400 ringing the People’s Republic.
The 2021 Pentagon budget makes clear that there will be a significant move away from the Middle East and a redeployment of resources to East Asia, which will become America’s “priority theater” in years to come. Another region of conflict will be the Arctic, where warming temperatures will open up valuable sea lanes for exploitation. Already, many in Washington are advocating for the occupation of Norway as a measure to counter a supposed Russian threat.
The constant fear-mongering in the press has had a significant effect: a recent poll found that American public opinion towards China and Russia has collapsed to below Cold War levels, with only 20% and 22% of the U.S. holding positive opinions about those countries, respectively.
This is a far cry from nine years ago, when the same polls showed that public opinion towards China was decidedly positive. And when Mitt Romney attempted to cast Russia as the United States’ number one geopolitical foe during the 2012 presidential debates, his Democratic opponents mocked him relentlessly. “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back…the Cold War’s been over for 20 years,” Barack Obama quipped.
Today, there is little disagreement between the two parties as to who the United States’ two primary enemies are, and the rhetoric and sabre rattling continues to escalate. In February, the Atlantic Council — the semi-official think tank of NATO, staffed by senior military figures from NATO member states — published a 26,000-word report describing China as “the single most important challenge facing the United States” today. The report advised the U.S. to use the power of its military to draw a number of “red lines” around China, beyond which the U.S. would respond. This included essentially any Chinese or North Korean military action in the Asia-Pacific region, or any Chinese cyber attacks on the U.S. or its allies. Failure to do so, they advised President Biden, would result in “national humiliation.”
The report also laid out what a successful China policy would look like by 2050: “[T]he United States and its major allies continue to dominate the regional and global balance of power across all the major indices of power” and head of state Xi Jinping “has been replaced by a more moderate party leadership; and … the Chinese people themselves have come to question and challenge the Communist Party’s century-long proposition that China’s ancient civilization is forever destined to an authoritarian future.” In other words, that U.S. pressure had resulted in regime change in Beijing.
In May, political and military leaders from Western nations met at the Alliance of Democracies Summit, where one of the big talking points was establishing an “Asian NATO” to push back at what they saw as intolerable Chinese aggression in the region. Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster endorsed the plan, describing the Chinese Communist Party as without a doubt the number one threat to democracy in the world.
But while China is not sailing its warships to the coasts of California or Maine, the opposite is happening on the other side of the globe. Throughout 2020 and 2021, the U.S. undertook a series of provocative military actions, surveying Chinese coastal defenses from the sea and the air. In July of last year, the U.S.S. Peralta came within 41 nautical miles from China’s maritime boundary. Meanwhile, American nuclear bombers have flown over Chinese ships near Hainan island.
Alongside the military build up, the U.S. is also carrying out an economic war with its foes, attempting to curtail China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a huge economic development plan for Asia, Europe, Africa and Australasia. With a similar lack of success, the U.S. attempted to cajole Germany into abandoning the Nord Stream 2 Pipeline, which will allow up to 110 billion m3 of Russian gas to be pumped into Germany (and much of Europe), forging a deeper economic codependence between the two countries. Both China and Russia are also under a considerable U.S. sanctions regime.
Other economic strong-arming has included the Trump administration attempting to force Chinese-owned social media company TikTok to sell itself to an American rival, trying to block the rollout of global 5G technology under Chinese company Huawei, and leaning on social media platforms to silence Chinese voices. Last year, a U.S.-government-funded think tank convinced Twitter to delete over 170,000 accounts sympathetic to the Chinese government on one day alone.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a convenient tool in ramping up anti-China sentiment among the American public, with both Trump and Biden using the virus’s apparent Chinese origins for political capital. Trump himself consistently referred to it as the “China virus” and, even more derisively, as the “Kung Flu.” Going further, Florida Senator Rick Scott claimed that every Chinese citizen is a Communist spy and should be treated as such. In such a climate, racist attacks on Asian-Americans have soared.
Russia has also been the target of a similar infowar, with Russian public broadcaster RT taken off the air in some U.S. markets, its staff forced to register as foreign agents under a 1938 law passed to counter Nazi propaganda. Both countries have also been accused of using heretofore unknown microwave weapons against American secret agents and diplomats.
A number of articles in corporate media suggest that what they fear about the Chinese and Russian vaccines is not that they are ineffective, but that they are indeed effective, and will allow those countries to score diplomatic wins. “China and Russia are using coronavirus vaccines to expand their influence. The U.S. is on the sidelines,” ran one Washington Post headline. The New York Times seemed to agree: “Brazil Needs Vaccines. China Is Benefiting,” it wrote, worrying that Sinopharm and Sinovac are giving China “enormous leverage in pandemic-ravaged nations,” noting that Brazil has recently softened its hardline stance against Huawei’s 5G network, supposedly in response to help from China. The idea that the U.S. could counter this by using its enormous political and diplomatic power to waive intellectual property rights to vaccine production — meaning that it could be made freely all around the world — was not considered.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the deep inequalities around the globe. In the United States and other rich nations that hoarded them, vaccines are plentiful and freely available to all. But they have been met with enormous skepticism from the public. A Morning Consult poll found that 30% of Americans are still skeptical of them or categorically refuse to be immunized. In what has become a partisan culture war, more than 97% of Americans recently hospitalized and 99.5% of those dying of COVID-19 are unvaccinated, according to the CDC and the Surgeon General.
Meanwhile, in the Global South, there is a huge desire to be vaccinated, but this is being blocked by U.S. actions. Western nations, who possess far more vaccines than they could ever use themselves, are refusing to waive intellectual property rights, preventing worldwide production. U.S. sanctions, too, are stopping Cuba from importing the raw material it needs to ramp up production of its domestically-produced COVID vaccines. The island also has a shortage of syringes, thanks to the U.S. blockade, meaning it cannot even fully vaccinate its own citizens.
The shameful reality of global health
— Madhu Pai, MD, PhD (@paimadhu) July 18, 2021
While many Americans see the coronavirus as in the rear-view mirror, across the globe it is still raging, with more than 8,000 people dying daily and more than half a million testing positive, as the world enters a third wave of infections. Many countries have barely started vaccinating their populations, and reports suggest the world’s poor will have to wait until 2024 or longer to receive a shot. For instance, the Democratic Republic of the Congo — Africa’s third largest and second most populous country — has vaccinated only 0.09% of its citizens (fewer than 1 in 1,000).
Vaccines from other countries could help this acute shortage. Yet it is clear that many in Washington do not want this to happen. Corporate media have spent the last 18 months insisting that we “trust science” and condemning domestic conspiracy theories about the trustworthiness of vaccines. Yet when it comes to foreign vaccines, that belief in the scientific method is sacrificed on the altar of politics, putting people’s lives at risk to help advance America’s geopolitical goals.
The consistent message to the world in U.S. media has been “The Chinese (and Russian) vaccines are ineffective or dangerous. Do not take them.” Apart from being factually incorrect, for many in the Global South, Sinovac, Sinopharm or Sputnik are their only choice, meaning this message is endangering millions of people. Others have no access to vaccines whatsoever.
Likewise, domestic vaccine skepticism has been strongly condemned, with individuals and organizations removed from social media and even prevented from using platforms such as Patreon to support their work. But international vaccine skepticism is not only not censored, it is actively encouraged and boosted by many of our largest and most trusted news sources, who, in a feat of extraordinary irresponsibility, are actively putting people’s lives at risk to score political points.
Feature photo | A nursing student administers the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination center at UNLV, in Las Vegas. John Locher | AP
Alan MacLeod is Senior Staff Writer for MintPress News. After completing his PhD in 2017 he published two books: Bad News From Venezuela: Twenty Years of Fake News and Misreporting and Propaganda in the Information Age: Still Manufacturing Consent, as well as a number of academic articles. He has also contributed to FAIR.org, The Guardian, Salon, The Grayzone, Jacobin Magazine, and Common Dreams.