Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has condemned a reported Russian disinformation campaign to undermine confidence in a British coronavirus vaccine as "utterly deplorable".
Pictures, memes and video clips designed to induce fear about the vaccine being developed by Oxford University have been created in Russia with a view to spreading them round the world through social media, according to the Times.
The crude imagery suggests the vaccine could turn people into monkeys because it uses a chimpanzee virus as a vector – even though it is a common practice in vaccine development.
The paper said the campaign is being targeted at countries where Russia wants to sell its own Sputnik V vaccine, as well as at Western nations.
Mr Raab warned that the campaign could cause damage at a time when the world should be coming together to fight Covid-19.
"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," the Cabinet minister told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.
"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."
Pascal Soriot, chief executive of AstraZeneca, the pharmaceutical giant that plans to mass-produce the Oxford vaccine if cleared for public use, said it is important that the public is not deceived by such actions.
"Misinformation is a clear risk to public health. I urge everyone to use reliable sources of information, to trust regulatory agencies and to remember the enormous benefit vaccines and medicines continue to bring to humanity," he told the Times.
The latest disclosure comes after Britain, the United States and Canada earlier this year accused Russian spies of trying to steal details of coronavirus vaccine research being carried out in other countries.
Earlier this week, the new director-general of MI5, Ken McCallum, said the agency had been involved in protecting the "integrity" of UK research.