French media and social networks were abuzz Tuesday with speculation about a mysterious offer to influencers and YouTube personalities asking them to publicly denigrate the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine in return for money.
Those targeted by the campaign, who are active in the health and science fields, said they had received an email from an apparently UK-based communications agency offering them "a partnership" on behalf of a client with "a colossal budget" but who wanted to remain anonymous and also to keep any deal secret.
"Strange. I've received a partnership proposal which consists of slamming the Pfizer vaccine in a video," tweeted Leo Grasset, whose popular science channel has nearly 1.2 million subscribers on YouTube.
"Colossal budget, client wants to remain incognito, and I'd have to hide the sponsorship."
He added: "Incredible. The address of the London agency that contacted me is fake. They never had a presence there, it's a laser surgery centre. All staff have weird LinkedIn profiles."
The profiles he found had now disappeared, but not before he noticed that "everybody there has worked in Russia".
Sami Ouladitto, a comedian with nearly 400,000 subscribers, reported a similar approach, as did Et Ca Se Dit Medecin (And They Call Themselves Doctors), a hospital intern with 84,000 followers on Instagram.
"This is pathetic, it's dangerous, it's irresponsible and it's not going to work," French Health Minister Olivier Veran told the BFMTV channel on Tuesday.
French people are mostly in favour of getting vaccinated and "I don't think that any attempt to turn them away from vaccines will work," he said, adding he had "no idea" whether the supposed offer might have originated in Russia.
- Virgin Islands link? -
The authors of the emails, claiming to be a London-based agency called Fazze, are difficult to trace, French media reported.
Le Monde newspaper said Fazze had never been registered in the United Kingdom, but may have a legal presence in the Virgin Islands.
But according to the LinkedIn profile of Fazze's CEO, now deleted, the agency operates out of Moscow, Le Monde said.
According to tweets by people claiming knowledge of the matter, the agency offered 2,000 euros ($2,450) to influencers in return for them claiming notably that the Pfizer-BioNTech jab caused more deaths than any other vaccine.
The vaccine, usually referred to in France as only Pfizer, has gained in popularity after a rival British-Swedish vaccine by AstraZeneca fell out of favour in much of the European Union because of health concerns and delivery delays.
The EU executive is suing AstraZeneca to force it to deliver 90 million more doses of its Covid-19 vaccine before July.
The legal action piles further pressure on the company after a link was made between its vaccine and very rare but often fatal blood clots coupled with low platelet levels.
The EU has also authorised two other vaccines for use, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson.
But Russia's Sputnik vaccine -- as well as China's Sinopharm -- are still not cleared for use in the bloc.
After a sluggish start, France's coronavirus vaccination rollout has gained pace in recent weeks, with some 23 million people -- a third of the population -- receiving at least one dose so far.