The head of the Oxford University vaccine trial says a bizarre Russian smear campaign designed to undermine the work of British scientists is “a risk for all of us”.
The disinformation campaign is designed to spread fear about the UK’s coronavirus jab by claiming it is a “chimpanzee vaccine”.
Pictures, memes and video clips depicting the vaccine as dangerous were created in Russia to be spread on social media networks.
The images depict Boris Johnson mocked up as a monkey with the caption: “I like my bigfoot vaccine”.
Another unsettling meme shows a chimpanzee in an AstraZeneca lab coat brandishing a syringe.
And America’s Uncle Sam character appears in another image with the caption: “I want you to take monkey vaccine”.
The campaign, which targets the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine partnership, claims the British-made jab could turn people into monkeys because it uses a chimpanzee virus as a vector.
Russia is launching the campaign in countries where it hopes to sell its own Sputnik V vaccine, it was reported.
The fake news push comes after Britain's MI5 chief Ken McCallum warned hostile powers were trying to sabotage the country's vaccine trials.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Oxford vaccine director Prof Andrew Pollard said fear campaigns about vaccines in a time of crisis were a "risk for all of us".
He said: “Anything that undermines trust in the public health approach we’re taking could be extremely dangerous.
“Vaccines are such an important cornerstone for children.
“Anything that drives that wider view in societies around the world that there is something unsafe about them, really risks their health.”
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab called the disinformation campaign “deplorable”.
“The UK is world-famous for the quality of our research,” he told the BBC. “Any attempt to spread lies about the vaccine … is utterly deplorable.”
Prof Pollard scoffed at the claim the vaccine was designed for chimpanzees.
He explained that the Oxford vaccine was based on the common cold virus from a variety of species.
“That virus, to our bodies, looks the same - it’s the same family of viruses, whether they’re human or chimpanzee viruses,” Prof Pollard said.
“We don’t actually have any chimpanzees at all in the process of making a vaccine.”
The Russian campaign began about a month ago after a volunteer in the trial fell ill.
Countries including Brazil and India, where Russia is marketing its own vaccine, have been targeted by the campaign.
The memes were recently featured on a top Russian news programme.
A spokesman for the Kremlin denied it was behind the campaign, telling The Times: "The suggestion that the Russian state may conduct any kind of propaganda against the AstraZeneca vaccine is itself an example of disinformation."