A Russian fake news campaign aiming to undermine the Oxford University Covid-19 vaccine is claiming that it could turn people into monkeys.
The bizarre reports and images were uncovered by a special investigation by The Times and claim patients can develop ape-like characteristics because the British-made vaccine uses a chimpanzee virus as a vector.
One state TV channel even ran images of a suit-clad prime minister Boris Johnson with the hirsute features of a chimp. A Whitehall source told the newspaper the propaganda was “reckless and contemptible” and could damage people’s health.
The campaign is aimed at influencing nations to purchase the Russian frozen vaccine (Gam-Covid-Vac – known as Sputnik V), which has been trialled in the Burdenko Hospital in Moscow, involving both civilian and military volunteers.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “Any attempt to spread lies about coronavirus while we are trying to come together to find a vaccine is utterly deplorable.”
They added that the UK has made its position “very clear to Russia” and “we know their track record in this area.”
Foreign secretary Dominic Raab told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “It’s a shabby piece of disinformation but it is very serious because it is an attempt to disrupt the attempts to find a safe vaccine.
“We know that Russia has a track record of using disinformation as a foreign policy tool [...] but actually any attempt to spread lies about Covid-19, and the vaccine in particular, when we’re trying to come together as an international community to resolve a global pandemic is utterly deplorable.”
It comes as the head of MI5 admitted British spies were racing to defend coronavirus vaccine work against hostile powers seeking to steal or sabotage research data in the race for the global first of providing a jab that could provide immunity.
Oxford University’s vaccine candidate, which has been licensed to AstraZeneca, is in late stage trials, while a vaccine candidate being developed by Imperial College London is in early stage clinical trials.
“Clearly, the global prize of having a first useable vaccine against this deadly virus is a large one, so we would expect that a range of other parties around the globe would be quite interested in that research,” MI5 director general Ken McCallum told reporters.
McCallum, who was named the new boss of the security service in March when the United Kingdom was under national lockdown, said there were a range of threats against the vaccine development work.
“I guess there are two bits we are on the lookout for: attempts either to steal unique intellectual property that’s been generated in that research, or potentially to fiddle with the data,” he said.
“And then the second risk we’ve got to be alive to is the possibility that the research is still high integrity and sound, but that somebody tries to sow doubt about its integrity.”
Britain’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) said in July that hackers backed by the Russian state were trying to steal Covid-19 vaccine and treatment research from academic and pharmaceutical institutions around the world.
More than 150 potential vaccines are being developed and tested globally to stop the Covid-19 pandemic, with 42 in human trials, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.