This is a joint investigation by The Daily Beast and Delfi.ee news organization.
TALLINN—Russian state media has branded the Pfizer vaccine for coronavirus the “shot of death,” but one Russian diplomat is willing to take his chances. Yuri Gribkov, Moscow’s outgoing consul general to Estonia, was seen leaving the Ida-Viru Central Hospital Wednesday, having just secretly received the second dose of the American pharmaceutical giant’s inoculant.
Gribkov admitted on camera to The Daily Beast and Estonia’s Delfi that he was taking the Pfizer vaccine, even though his government has mounted an extensive disinformation campaign intended to suggest it is ineffective, dangerous, or even lethal, especially when compared with Russia’s own Sputnik V vaccine.
Gribkov is due to complete his posting in Narva and return to Russia next week. But he said he didn’t want to wait to receive his native country’s drug and was acting on advice from his Estonian physician, who diagnosed him with “very weak lungs.”
He also apparently pushed to the front of the vaccine line in a country that is struggling to inoculate its frontline healthcare workers.
Gribkov denied that the Kremlin and its surrogates in the media have been denigrating the Pfizer variant. “None of my colleagues, who I know for a long time, said that it is a ‘shot of death,’” the consul general said.
Well, perhaps not his colleagues, but a wide swath of Russia’s pro-government or government-controlled media have.
One particularly aggressive peddler of this lie is Tsargrad TV, a television channel owned by Konstantin Malofeev, an ultranationalist oligarch who has been sanctioned by the U.S. and EU for financing Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. On Jan. 15. alone, Tsargrad published eight articles on its website characterizing the Pfizer vaccine as a “shot of death,” or Укол Смерти in Russian. In one, the website suggested that administering the FDA-approved vaccine in Russia was tantamount to “illegal [experimentation]” on humans. Tsargrad has also falsely suggested that fleeting side effects some Israelis have experienced were lifelong debilitations.
Russian outlets controlled by the Kremlin, such as RT and Sputnik, have trafficked in similar misleading claims. One hobbyhorse is Norway, where about two dozen elderly or terminally ill vaccine recipients out of 42,000 have died, although medical experts told CNN that even common, mild side effects might have overwhelmed these patients’ weakened immune systems. There was no established causal link, the experts said, between drug and serious health complications.
Yet weaving conspiracist skeins out of banal facts is precisely the point of disinformation schemes, in this case with the added market incentive of boosting Russian pharmaceuticals at the expense of the Western competition. Pfizer and its partner BioNTech announced the first vaccine for the once-in-a-century pandemic in November. Days later, Russia’s sovereign wealth fund heralded its own, with the head of that fund, Kiril Dmitriev, later disparaging Western vaccine manufacturers as relying on “experimental, little studied and not proven in the long-term technologies, encountering obstacles in their clinical trials.” For all that, then-President-elect Joe Biden received his second shot of the Pfizer vaccine on live television ten days before his inauguration, whereas Vladimir Putin still has declined to take the Sputnik V shot.
“We see a range of stories in the pro-Kremlin media ecosystem from ‘it doesn't work’ to ‘it will kill you,’" according to Jakub Kalensky, Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab, which monitors disinformation. “The aim is always the same: persuade Westerners they cannot trust their systems, their institutions, their doctors, their media. If there’s more chaos in the West and more people die, it is just one of the more desirable effects of the Kremlin's disinformation machine.”
“Lies for thee, jabs for me” would appear, then, to be the Russian Foreign Ministry’s guiding principle. And Gribkov cut to the head of the line in a Baltic state still struggling to keep its own citizens healthy.
“As far as I know the Russian embassy like other foreign embassies received a diplomatic note from the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs with a suggestion to have [diplomats] vaccinated,” he said.
While it’s true that the Estonian ministry did send an announcement to embassies that the country was willing to vaccinate diplomats residing there, it stipulated that would only happen once “Estonia [has] enough vaccines,” which it currently does not.
Pfizer has cut down on the promised number of doses sent to Estonia, where 398 people have died of coronavirus. The country is still struggling to inoculate its frontline medical professionals. So far, just under 25,000 people have received the first shot, with just 4,735 having received the first and the booster. The vaccines will only be allowed to second-tier priority groups—those over 70 or those with underlying conditions—once everyone in the healthcare field has received it. Other supply chain delays have prompted the government to announce that it hopes to administer the vaccine to the general public by May.
Gribkov’s prioritized vaccination has prompted controversy. The Ida-Viru Central Hospital administrator Tarmo Bakler said the hospital was launching an internal investigation. “I can’t think of any regulations that would have allowed something like this to happen,” Bakler said.
Adding to the hypocrisy of Gribkov’s pre-farewell inoculation is the fact that he’s posted to Narva, an overwhelmingly Russian-speaking town on the border between Estonia and Russia. Narva and the surrounding Ida-Viru county has the highest COVID infection rate in the country, likely owing to the fact that the local population gets its news from the very Russian media organs suggesting that taking the Western vaccines is risky. Indeed, Narva has the smallest number of Estonians willing to get the Pfizer vaccine because of alarmist renderings of it.
Yet Gribkov is doing just fine. He said he’s experienced no pain or headaches since receiving his first Pfizer injection “because it was [administered by] professionals with a capital ‘P’... It was completely painless. Also, today everything was by the book.”