U.S. Military's Secret War Against Chinese Vaccines During COVID-19

"The Pentagon ran a secret anti-vaccination campaign to undermine China during the pandemic"

by Sededin Dedovic
U.S. Military's Secret War Against Chinese Vaccines During COVID-19
© Kevin Frayer / Getty Images

At the height of the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. military launched a covert campaign to counter what it perceived as China's growing influence in the Philippines, a country particularly hard-hit by the deadly virus, according to a Reuters investigation.

Using fake online accounts posing as Filipinos, the U.S. military's propaganda efforts turned into an anti-vaccination campaign, Reuters reported in a story published on Friday. Social media posts questioned the quality of face masks, testing kits, and the first vaccine available in the Philippines – the Chinese Sinovac.

This covert operation had not been previously reported. The goal was to sow doubt about the safety and efficacy of the vaccine and other aid delivered by China, Reuters' investigation revealed.

'China is the virus'

At least 300 accounts on X, formerly Twitter, were identified that matched the descriptions of former U.S.

military officials. Almost all were opened in mid-2020 and focused on the slogan #Chinaangvirus – a tag for “China is the virus”. “COVID came from China and the VACCINE also came from China, do not trust China!” read a typical tweet from July 2020.

The sentence was posted alongside a photo of a syringe next to the Chinese flag and a graph showing the rise in infections. Another post read: “From China – PPE, face mask, vaccine: FAKE. But the coronavirus is real”.

After Reuters inquired about the accounts, X removed the profiles, determining they were part of a coordinated propaganda campaign. The U.S. military's anti-vaccination efforts began in the spring of 2020 and expanded beyond Southeast Asia before being halted in mid-2021.

Firefighters prepare to conduct disinfection at the Wuhan Tianhe International Airport on April 3, 2020 in Wuhan, Hubei Province© Getty Images / Getty Images

The Pentagon adapted the campaign to local audiences across Central Asia and the Middle East, using a combination of fake social media accounts on multiple platforms to spread fear about Chinese vaccines among Muslims at a time when the virus was killing tens of thousands of people every day.

A key part of the strategy was to amplify the disputed claim that Chinese vaccines could be considered forbidden under Islamic law, as they sometimes contain pork gelatin.

Secret propaganda in developing countries

The military program began during former President Donald Trump's tenure and continued for months after President Joe Biden's term began – even after concerned social media leaders warned the new administration that the Pentagon was spreading COVID-19 misinformation, Reuters wrote.

In the spring of 2021, the White House issued an order banning anti-vaccination efforts, which also disparaged vaccines made by competitors, and the Pentagon initiated an internal review. Spokespeople for Trump and Biden did not respond to requests for comment on the covert program, Reuters reported.

A senior Defense Department official acknowledged that the U.S. military was involved in secret propaganda to discredit the Chinese vaccine in developing countries, but the unnamed official declined to provide details. A Pentagon spokeswoman said that the U.S.

military "uses various platforms, including social media, to counter malign attacks directed at the U.S., allies, and partners." She stated that China had begun "a disinformation campaign to falsely accuse the U.S. of spreading COVID-19." The Chinese foreign ministry said in an email that it had long asserted that the U.S.

government manipulates social media and spreads disinformation. A spokesperson for the Philippine Department of Health said that “Reuters' findings deserve to be investigated and reviewed by the relevant authorities of the countries involved”.

A staff member takes part in a demonstration of a robot arm collecting swab samples for coronavirus disease (COVID-19) detection© Lintao Zhang / Getty Images

Pentagon 'crossed the line'

Some American public health experts condemned the Pentagon's program, saying it endangered civilians for potential geopolitical gain.

"I think it's indefensible," said Daniel Lucey, an infectious disease specialist at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College. “I am extremely appalled and disappointed to hear that the U.S. government might have done this”.

Efforts to instill fear of Chinese vaccines risked undermining public trust in government health initiatives, including vaccines produced in the U.S. that later became available, Lucey and others said. Although Chinese vaccines were shown to be less effective than the American Pfizer and Moderna, all were approved by the World Health Organization.

Sinovac did not respond to a request for comment.

"It should have been in our interest to get as many vaccines into people's arms as possible," said Greg Treverton, former chairman of the U.S. National Intelligence Council, which coordinates analysis and strategy for numerous spy agencies in Washington.

What the Pentagon did, Treverton said, "crosses the line." The U.S. military's covert campaign against Chinese vaccines during the COVID-19 pandemic aimed to undermine China's influence but risked civilian trust and safety.

Despite being less effective than Western alternatives, Chinese vaccines were approved by the WHO. The operation, spanning Trump's and Biden's terms, involved fake social media accounts and has sparked significant criticism, highlighting the ethical dilemmas in global health and geopolitical strategies.