Revealed: Matt Hancock’s ex vaccine comms chief worked with Kremlin-backed firm that spread anti-West propaganda to promote Russia’s Sputnik Covid jab
- Jaber Mohamed left his role as chief communications officer at the Department of Health last summer
- Now associate director at media relations hired to elevate the profile of controversial Sputnik V vaccine
- Russian vaccine described by EU and US security officials as propaganda tool and linked to cyber attacks
Jaber Mohamed was a former chief communications officer at the Department of Health under Matt Hancock. He is now an associate director at a media relations company hired to elevate the profile of Moscow’s controversial Sputnik V Covid vaccine in Britain
A former Government PR officer responsible for promoting Covid jabs to the British public became a spinner for a Kremlin-backed Russian firm involved in spreading propaganda about Western shots, MailOnline can reveal.
Jaber Mohamed left his role as chief communications officer at the Department of Health last summer where he worked under former Health Secretary Matt Hancock during the UK’s coronavirus vaccine drive.
He is now an associate director at Engine MHP, the media relations company hired to elevate the profile of Moscow’s controversial Sputnik V Covid vaccine in Britain.
The Russian jab, which is not being used by any major Western nations, is backed by the state-controlled Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) launched by Vladimir Putin in 2011.
Security bosses in the EU and US have described Sputnik V as a Russian propaganda tool and said its aggressive media strategy ‘sought to undermine public trust’ in Western vaccines and regulators.
There is no suggestion that Engine MHP or Mr Mohamed spread any misinformation but it comes amid heightened concerns about Kremlin interference in the UK following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Investigations by the EU’s defence ministry and US State Department last year found that Russia had used Sputnik to launch a vast campaign ‘to spread propaganda and lies’ about the Pfizer and Moderna jabs.
Most of the activity can be found on Sputnik’s official Twitter account, which boasts 1million followers. The account has published a number of unfounded claims, including that AstraZeneca and Pfizer’s vaccines have caused high numbers of unreported deaths.
The Twitter account has also played up fears about vaccine side effects, and just days ago claimed jab-induced heart inflammation after mRNA vaccines was being ‘underreported’.
Engine MHP told MailOnline that it has cut all ties to the Russian Direct Investment Fund after what it called the ‘appalling’ Russian invasion of Ukraine and claims it ‘received no payment for the work undertaken’.
The firm also said it had no involvement in the content or management of Sputnik’s social media accounts.
The Sputnik vaccine has been mired in controversy since Russia rushed it through approval before it had been properly studied and tested in late 2020
Security officials have singled out Sputnik’s official Twitter account, which boasts 1million followers, as being central to Russia’s pandemic propaganda operation. On April 23 2021, it published unfounded claims that vaccines made by Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca and Johnson and Johnson were killing more people than countries were officially disclosing. The ‘study’ looked at anyone who died from any cause and had received at least one Western vaccine in an attempt to question their safety profiles
Thirty-five countries, excluding Russia, have purchased Sputnik V doses, mostly in South America, Africa, Asia and eastern Europe, with the West steering clear of the Kremlin-backed shot. Italy has been producing doses but only a small number of Italians have actually received Sputnik, with most of its doses going to neighboring San Marino
It has also played up fears about the side effects of Western jabs including CVT – a severe type of brain clot associated in a rare number of people vaccinated with AstraZeneca or Johnson and Johnsons – and myocarditis, a rare type of heart inflammation spotted after mRNA vaccination
Investigations by US and EU intelligence officials have warned of Sputnik’s media assault
Experts have questioned many of the claims made by Sputnik citing a lack of data, including that it is the ‘world’s safest vaccine’
The Sputnik Twitter account raises fears about myocarditis in young people in an attempt to discredit Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines
A spokesperson for the company told MailOnline: ‘Engine worked briefly with the RDIF to support medical communications around Sputnik V.
‘We took a decision to cease working with the organisation due to the escalating and appalling situation in the Ukraine and received no payment for the work undertaken.’
Mr Mohamed — a former journalist at the Mail on Sunday and Guardian — joined the press office at the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) in October 2018, where colleagues described him as ‘eccentric’.
An international hacking organisation has launched an all-out ‘cyberwar’ on Vladimir Putin’s media, social media sites and Kremlin-backed broadcaster in a bid to thwart the despot’s propaganda against Ukraine and the West.
Anonymous have apparently targeted three Russian state news agencies and taken down the Kremlin website after attacking Kremlin-backed channel RT.
When trying to access Fontanka, TASS and Kommersant’s websites on Monday morning, error messages appeared and the websites were unable to load.
The latest move comes after the elusive computer hackers declared a ‘cyber war’ against Vladimir Putin’s government on Thursday after he mounted a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Moscow has been accused of producing Hollywood-style ‘fake news’ videos to inflame tensions with Ukraine.
Misinformation about the conflict includes the notion that Ukrainian soldiers are ‘radical nationalists’ who are defending a genocide against Russians.
When MailOnline tried to access Fontanka, a news outlet based in St Petersburg, on Monday morning, a message signed by Anonymous urged citizens to ‘stop this madness’ and says Vladimir Putin has ‘put us in danger’.
The message, which replaced the website’s normal homepage, claimed they will be ‘fired’ or ‘jailed’ for their actions but added that they ‘can’t take it anymore’.
It reads: ‘Dear citizens. We urge you to stop this madness, do not send your sons and husbands to certain death. Putin makes us lie and puts us in danger.
‘We were isolated from the whole world, they stopped buying oil and gas. In a few years we will live like in North Korea.
‘What is it for us? To put Putin in the textbooks? This is not our war, let’s stop it!
‘This message will be deleted, and some of us will be fired or even jailed. But we can’t take it anymore.
‘Indifferent journalists of Russia.’
It bore the mark of Anonymous, the activist collective known for cyber attacks against some governments and corporations.
Likewise, when MailOnline attempted to access daily newspaper Kommersant’s website on Monday morning, a message appeared saying ‘the site can’t be reached’.
A similar message appeared on news agency TASS’s website, which said ‘an error occurred’.
His official title was Chief Press Officer for International, Public Health and Medicines, which has been described as a middle-management role.
He worked under the former Secretary of State for Health Mr Hancock during the pandemic but sources say they were ‘by no means close’ and Mr Mohamed’s interactions with ministers were ‘limited’.
One former colleague told MailOnline he would ‘often he would go above and beyond to make things happen’, while another said he was ‘corporate’ minded.
Leeds University-educated Mr Mohamed joined Engine MHP in June 2021 as associate director of communications for the firm’s healthcare division.
Announcing his arrival, the firm said: ‘He oversaw all media relations for the UK’s Covid-19 Vaccination Programme – providing strategic advice to the Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi and Health Secretary Matt Hancock.’
Mr Mohamed told MailOnline: ‘We were approached by the RDIF to support with medical communications around the Sputnik V vaccine. Our work for them was limited to issuing one release detailing trial results.
‘We took the decision to cease discussions with the RDIF after ten days and asked not to receive any payment.’
Engine began its collaboration with the RDIF and Sputnik in early February to manage the vaccine’s profile in the UK.
The RDIF wanted to secure positive coverage in the trade press, with the hopes of garnering support to get Sputnik involved in the UK’s Covid vaccine rollout.
Engine said it cut ties with the Russian wealth fund on February 24 after Mr Putin ordered the military invasion of Ukraine.
The PR firm said no contracts were signed, no payments were received and the partnership involved a ‘small project’. Mr Mohamed was responsible for distributing Engine’s sole press release for Sputnik on February 14.
The release, sent to the national press and stamped with the RDIF logo, reported results from a study in Russia and Azerbaijan looking at the jab used in combination with AstraZeneca’s vaccine.
It read: ‘Good morning, Combined use of AstraZeneca’s vaccine and the first component of the Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine (Sputnik Light) shows a good safety profile with no serious adverse events related to vaccination, according to interim results of phase II clinical trials to evaluate safety and immunogenicity.
‘The Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF, Russia’s sovereign wealth fund), R-Pharm group and AstraZeneca has today announced the interim results of the trials, involving 100 volunteers in Russia and 100 volunteers in Azerbaijan.
‘The vaccines combination demonstrated an acceptable safety profile, which is consistent with the results of previous AstraZeneca vaccine, Sputnik V and Sputnik Light vaccines clinical trials.
‘Volunteers were monitored for 57 days after the first dose. Monitoring results demonstrated a good safety profile of the combination. No serious adverse events related to vaccination were registered.’
A spokesperson for Engine added: ‘Engine worked with the RDIF for ten days in total and did not receive payment for the work undertaken.
‘During this period we issued one release around an interim trial data announcement. Jaber Mohamed was a member of the Engine client account team.’
Engine is the second British PR firm to promote Sputnik V after Powerscourt Group, which was responsible for its media communications early in the pandemic.
Powerscourt Group’s famous former clients include BP, Virgin Money, Airbus and shopping centre giant Intu.
The consultancy partnered with the vaccine in late 2020 as the initial trials of the jab were wrapping up, with the first press release praising Sputnik published on November 11 that year.
Mr Mohamed worked under Matt Hancock when he was Health Secretary. The former Government comms person also worked with Nadhim Zahawi, who was then-vaccines minister
It peddled a number of unsubstantiated claims about the vaccine through its releases, including that it is ‘the most efficient Covid vaccine in the world’.
Powerscourt’s CEO, ex-journalist Rory Godson, even retweeted posts from the official Sputnik V Twitter account at the centre of propaganda accusations.
A spokesperson for Powerscourt told MailOnline: ‘Powerscourt advised the Russian Direct Investment Fund and Gamelaya Institute on specific projects relating to the Gamelaya Institute’s clinical development of their Covid-19 vaccine, including the Lancet publication of the Phase III clinical trial results which took place on February 2, 2021 and, according to the publication, which was peer reviewed, showed substantial efficacy.
‘Powerscourt provided scientific communications advice around the trial results and scientific publication. We had no involvement in the trials and did not make claims about the trials.’
They added: ‘Retweets are not endorsements. Powerscourt has not worked with RDIF since early 2021.’
The Sputnik vaccine has been mired in controversy since Russia rushed it through approval before it had been properly studied and tested in late 2020.
Experts said at the time it was dangerous but those fears did not materialise in the real world, with hundreds of millions of people now vaccinated with the jab worldwide — mostly in developing countries, the Middle East and parts of eastern Europe.
Mr Putin was accused of trying to elevate the country’s international standing by being seen to be the first to have a vaccine for the disease — and it was given its name as a nod to the world’s first space satellite, Sputnik.
It uses the same technology as AstraZeneca’s vaccines that involves teaching the body how to fight off Covid by using a weakened common cold virus.
Russia was accused of attempting to steal proprietary information about the UK jab from labs in Oxford in 2020.
The UK’s cyber security watchdog said it was ’95 per cent’ confident ‘Russian intelligence agencies’ were responsible for the attacks on drug companies and research groups. Similar attacks were carried out in the US and Canada, it said.
It was never revealed if the Kremlin managed to access sensitive medical information.
But numerous investigations and reports have found evidence of Russia attempting to interfere and undermine vaccine rollouts around the world.
A probe by the US State Department in April 2021 said Russia was behind a vast campaign ‘to spread propaganda and lies’ about the American-made Pfizer and Moderna jabs.
The following month the EU External Action Service (EEAS) — the EU’s defence ministry — warned that Russia was using state-controlled media as well as social media, ‘including official diplomatic social media accounts’, to spread its propaganda.
A press release issued by Powerscourt, the UK communications consultancy who handled Sputnik’s media profile for most of the pandemic, clamed the Russian vaccine was the most efficient Covid jab in the world
Another press release distributed by Powerscourt bragged about a poll which claimed to show Russia was the most trusted vaccine maker in the world, and Sputnik the most recognisable jab. It was based on about 9,000 adults in India, Brazil, Mexico, the Philippines, Vietnam, Argentina, Algeria, the United Arab Emirates and Serbia
The EEAS described Russia’s efforts as a ‘whole-of-government approach’ involving state authorities, state companies and state mass media.
The ministry took specific aim at the official Sputnik Twitter account, which it said ‘sought to undermine public trust’ in medical regulators.
The Sputnik account has also been used by the Kremlin to undermine Western jabs and attack its critics.
On April 23 2021, it published unfounded claims that vaccines made by Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca and Johnson and Johnson were killing more people than countries were officially disclosing.
Professor Carl Bergstrom, a biologist at the University of Washington, said at the time they were ‘completely nonsense statistics’, adding that ‘no one with an iota of quantitative understanding would do this, unless trying to deceive’.
The claims, made in a ‘Sputnik V study’, looked at anyone who died from any cause and had received at least one Western vaccine in an attempt to question their safety profiles.
Sputnik’s account claimed the study showed ‘there are significantly more deaths following vaccination with Pfizer than with AstraZeneca vaccine per 1million administered doses.’
Follow-up tweets on April 26 took an even more aggressive tone, accusing vaccine makers of ‘pressuring media not to report’ the figures.
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