The Search for a Covid Vaccine Is Not an Arms Race

Treating vaccine research like a national security secret endangers us all.

Sarah Lazare August 3, 2020

French engineer-virologist Thomas Mollet looks at 24 well plates adherent cells monolayer infected with a Sars-CoV-2 virus at the Valneva SE Group headquarters in Saint-Herblain, western France, on July 30, 2020. (Photo by JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER/AFP via Getty Images)

In U.S. polit­i­cal dis­course, the search for a Covid-19 vac­cine is large­ly framed as an arms race, in which the aim of the Unit­ed States is to beat out oth­er coun­tries in procur­ing a vac­cine, which will pre­sum­ably go first to its own peo­ple. This vac­cine nation­al­ism, as glob­al infec­tions surge past 18 mil­lion and deaths near 700,000, is play­ing out along well-worn geopo­lit­i­cal fault-lines: Rus­sia, Chi­na and even Iran are try­ing to steal our vac­cine research, U.S. intel­li­gence agen­cies claim, their warn­ings duti­ful­ly cir­cu­lat­ed in major media out­lets. Yet, the fact that U.S. com­pa­nies and the gov­ern­ment are being pro­pri­etary over research infor­ma­tion and vac­cine access is nev­er ques­tioned. In pop­u­lar dis­course, it’s uncon­scionable to try to obtain research infor­ma­tion, but not to hoard it.

The fact that the United States is recusing itself from pretty much all global cooperation does not bode well for equitable distribution of a potential vaccine.

Major U.S. media pub­li­ca­tions have cast the quest for a vac­cine as a zero-sum glob­al com­pe­ti­tion, at times using the lan­guage of overt war. A July 7 arti­cle in Reuters is head­lined, “‘At war time speed’, Chi­na leads COVID-19 vac­cine race.” It states, Many oth­er coun­tries, includ­ing the Unit­ed States, are coor­di­nat­ing close­ly with the pri­vate sec­tor to try to win the vac­cine devel­op­ment race.” A July 16 arti­cle in Forbes warns, As Coro­n­avirus Vac­cines Move Into The Test­ing Phase, Chi­na Begins At The Top.” This spin dates back to the ear­li­est peri­od of the cri­sis. On March 19, the New York Times ran a piece titled, Search for Coro­n­avirus Vac­cine Becomes a Glob­al Com­pe­ti­tion.” Its open­ing line declared, A glob­al arms race for a coro­n­avirus vac­cine is under­way.” On May 4, Busi­ness Insid­er put com­pe­ti­tion in stark­ly nation­al­ist terms. U.S. nation­al secu­ri­ty offi­cials and glob­al health experts are increas­ing­ly con­cerned Chi­na will devel­op a coro­n­avirus vac­cine first,” its head­line read.

Of course, there are oth­er pos­si­ble ways U.S. media out­lets could be depict­ing the search for a vac­cine. As Dean Bak­er, econ­o­mist and co-founder of the Cen­ter for Eco­nom­ic and Pol­i­cy Research (CEPR), a left-lean­ing think tank, tells In These Times, We have this com­mon prob­lem. Why on Earth wouldn’t we be work­ing togeth­er to find solu­tions as quick­ly as pos­si­ble? Some­how that got lost. We’re mak­ing it pro­pri­etary rather than say­ing, Here’s the knowledge.’”

But the fram­ing goes beyond mere com­pe­ti­tion: We’ve seen wide­spread media cov­er­age that stokes fear about geopo­lit­i­cal foes steal­ing” vac­cine research from the Unit­ed States. This is best cap­tured in a spate of arti­cles pub­lished in mid-July breath­less­ly warn­ing, as the New York Times put it, Rus­sia Is Try­ing to Steal Virus Vac­cine Data, West­ern Nations Say.” The Times sto­ry was sourced by Amer­i­can intel­li­gence offi­cials,” includ­ing the Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Agency, which claimed Russ­ian hack­ers were try­ing to steal vac­cine infor­ma­tion from U.S. uni­ver­si­ties and com­pa­nies. There was like­ly lit­tle imme­di­ate dam­age to glob­al pub­lic health, cyber­se­cu­ri­ty experts said,” the Times arti­cle con­cedes, but this did not stop the sto­ry from dom­i­nat­ing the head­lines. Nev­er ques­tioned, of course, was why the Unit­ed States and oth­er west­ern nations would be pro­pri­etary over high-stakes, poten­tial­ly life-sav­ing infor­ma­tion. The news cycle, Nathan Robin­son wrote for Cur­rent Affairs, is one of the most egre­gious exam­ples I have ever seen of nation­al­is­tic bias lead­ing to moral imbecility.”

Rus­sia is not the only coun­try tar­get­ed by this kind of cov­er­age. On May 10, the New York Times ran a sto­ry that was also sourced to the U.S. gov­ern­ment. It states, The FBI and the Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­ri­ty are prepar­ing to issue a warn­ing that China’s most skilled hack­ers and spies are work­ing to steal Amer­i­can research in the crash effort to devel­op vac­cines and treat­ments for the coro­n­avirus. The efforts are part of a surge in cybertheft and attacks by nations seek­ing advan­tage in the pan­dem­ic.” The piece warned, Iran and oth­er nations are also look­ing to steal data and exploit the pan­dem­ic with attacks on infra­struc­ture, offi­cials say.” That fol­lowed a May 8 arti­cle by Reuters warn­ing, Iran-linked hack­ers recent­ly tar­get­ed coro­n­avirus drug­mak­er Gilead.” At no point does the arti­cle pro­vide any evi­dence that this alleged theft pos­es a threat to pub­lic health or the search for a vaccine.

Accord­ing to Tobi­ta Chow, the direc­tor of Jus­tice is Glob­al” (and board mem­ber of In These Times), the mes­sage this sends is that, rather than a reori­en­ta­tion towards glob­al coop­er­a­tion and infor­ma­tion shar­ing, we need an esca­lat­ed law enforce­ment crack­down on any­one try­ing to steal vac­cine infor­ma­tion. This is fur­ther inflam­ing nation­al­ist pol­i­tics and con­tribut­ing to the increase of all of this infra­struc­ture and intel­li­gence agen­cies and fed­er­al law enforce­ment agen­cies devot­ed to pro­tect­ing intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty rights, which should not exist,” says Chow, adding: From the per­spec­tive of actu­al­ly help­ing peo­ple, we want every researcher on the plan­et capa­ble of con­tribut­ing to this effort doing so and for them to work with and col­lab­o­rate with each oth­er as freely as possible.”

Ramp­ing up puni­tive response

This media spin has been mir­rored in polit­i­cal dis­course, per­haps most bel­liger­ent­ly by Pres­i­dent Trump, who has sought to blame Chi­na for the Covid-19 out­break, as he over­sees a pro­found domes­tic cri­sis that has left the U.S. econ­o­my in free fall and led to U.S. infec­tion rates surg­ing out of con­trol. In ear­ly July, Trump for­mal­ly noti­fied Con­gress and the UN of the with­draw­al of the Unit­ed States from the World Health Orga­ni­za­tion, after his April deci­sion to halt fund­ing to the WHO, which he accused of aid­ing Chi­na in cov­er­ing up its role in spread­ing the virus.

Along­side this glob­al iso­la­tion, we are see­ing an esca­la­tion in efforts to aggres­sive­ly pun­ish coun­tries alleged­ly try­ing to steal” U.S. vac­cine infor­ma­tion. On May 21, Sens. Ted Cruz (R‑Tex.) and Rick Scott (R‑Fla.) intro­duced a bill to Pro­tect Covid-19 Vac­cine Research from Com­mu­nist Chi­na” which, in their words, requires a thor­ough nation­al secu­ri­ty eval­u­a­tion and clear­ance by the Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­ri­ty, the Depart­ment of State, and the Fed­er­al Bureau of Inves­ti­ga­tion of all Chi­nese stu­dent visa hold­ers tak­ing part in activ­i­ties relat­ed to COVID-19 vac­cine research.” This bill, if passed, would put Chi­nese visa hold­ers in the crosshairs of vac­cine nation­al­ism, part of a trend of racist scape­goat­ing that attempts to blame Chi­nese peo­ple for the alleged wrong­do­ing of the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment. The bill’s pro­po­nents have used over-the-top rhetoric to vil­i­fy Chi­na. The same Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Par­ty that cov­ered up the coro­n­avirus out­break also rou­tine­ly engages in state spon­sored theft of intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty,” Cruz said in a press state­ment. Sim­i­lar sen­ti­ments have been expressed by near­ly all of the Sen­ate Repub­li­cans cospon­sor­ing the bill, which has yet to face a vote.

Mean­while, intel­li­gence agen­cies are mak­ing a pub­lic show of their efforts to crack down on alleged Chi­nese intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty theft. As recent­ly as July 21, the Depart­ment of Jus­tice announced it had indict­ed two peo­ple with ties to Chi­na who had alleged­ly tried to obtain infor­ma­tion about Covid-19 vac­cine research as part of a broad­er hack­ing effort. An FBI press release breath­less­ly declared, Chi­na is deter­mined to use every means at its dis­pos­al — includ­ing the theft of intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty from U.S. com­pa­nies, labs, and uni­ver­si­ties — to degrade the Unit­ed States’ eco­nom­ic, tech­no­log­i­cal, and mil­i­tary advan­tages.” That spin was also reflect­ed in wide­spread media cov­er­age, sourced by the FBI, with head­lines like, Chi­nese Hack­ers Charged in Decade-Long Crime and Spy­ing Spree.”

Inter­viewed by the New York Times, Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D‑Md.) declared, We need a com­pre­hen­sive strat­e­gy to deter the ser­i­al theft of strate­gic U.S. secrets.” Van Hollen, along with Sen. Ben Sasse (R‑Neb.), intro­duced a bill on June 11 to, in their words, require sanc­tions on indi­vid­u­als and firms found to engage in, ben­e­fit from, or enable the sig­nif­i­cant and ser­i­al theft of U.S. intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty.” A sim­i­lar bill has also been intro­duced in the House.

Chow notes that fear-mon­ger­ing over intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty theft by Chi­na is esca­lat­ing dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, but pre­dates the Trump admin­is­tra­tion. This has led to some­thing that con­cerns me a lot, which is the devel­op­ment of this huge wing of the FBI, a whole eco­nom­ic espi­onage pro­gram, assum­ing every­one from Chi­na is a poten­tial spy. That start­ed under the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion and has ramped up tremen­dous­ly. Vac­cine nation­al­ism has con­tributed more to the growth of that program.”

This ethos is also reflect­ed in efforts to devote even more fund­ing to the crack­down. As expand­ed unem­ploy­ment insur­ance dries up amid a bal­loon­ing cri­sis of pover­ty and evic­tions, Sen­ate Repub­li­cans pro­posed in their July 27 Covid-19 relief pack­age that $53 mil­lion go to the Depart­ment of Home­land Security’s Cyber­se­cu­ri­ty and Infra­struc­ture Secu­ri­ty Agency (CISA) to pro­tect against increased attacks tar­get­ing Fed­er­al net­works for agen­cies involved in coro­n­avirus vac­cine development.”

Hoard­ing a poten­tial vaccine

Yet pun­ish­ment is not the only mech­a­nism by which vac­cine nation­al­ism is being enforced. The Unit­ed States is also bow­ing out of glob­al coop­er­a­tion and try­ing to buy up vac­cine reserves for itself, at the expense of poor­er countries.

Bak­er of CEPR told In These Times that any vac­cine search that is pro­pri­etary almost cer­tain­ly has to be slow­ing down research. If there are suc­cess­es, you’d like to know as quick­ly as pos­si­ble, as well as fail­ures, so that oth­ers don’t waste time on that. If it’s pro­pri­etary, it’s up to com­pa­nies whether they want to share infor­ma­tion. There is no oblig­a­tion to share.”

Ana San­tos Rutschman, Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor at Saint Louis Uni­ver­si­ty School of Law, tells In These Times she is most con­cerned about how the lack of glob­al coop­er­a­tion will affect the dis­tri­b­u­tion of a poten­tial vac­cine once it’s devel­oped. Accord­ing to the Covid-19 Vac­cine Track­er cre­at­ed by Faster­Cures of the Milken Insti­tute, a there are 199 vac­cines in devel­op­ment and 20 are in clin­i­cal test­ing. Chi­na alone already has mul­ti­ple vac­cines in human tri­als. Once you devel­op two to three can­di­dates and decide who will get them first, that’s when nation­al­ism will occur,” she says. It’s going to affect the way we dis­trib­ute the vaccine.”

The Unit­ed States and oth­er wealthy coun­tries are maneu­ver­ing quick­ly to buy up poten­tial vac­cines. As part of the Trump administration’s Oper­a­tion Warp Speed,” which is sup­posed to deliv­er Amer­i­cans 300 mil­lion dos­es of a vac­cine by Jan­u­ary 2021, the U.S. gov­ern­ment has signed bil­lions of dol­lars worth of deals with numer­ous com­pa­nies seek­ing to cre­ate a vac­cine. Sim­i­lar­ly, gov­ern­ments across Europe are mak­ing heavy invest­ments, and the Unit­ed States and Euro­pean coun­tries are pre­emp­tive­ly order­ing hun­dreds of mil­lions of poten­tial­ly suc­cess­ful vac­cine doses.

In this cli­mate, there is con­cern that access will be shaped by a country’s abil­i­ty to pur­chase, putting peo­ple in poor­er nations at an extreme dis­ad­van­tage. It’s almost like chil­dren fight­ing over food at home and the old­est child who is the strongest tak­ing all the food and say­ing, Lis­ten, I will keep all this food for myself and I don’t care if my broth­ers and sis­ters have eat­en or not,’” Chik­we Ihek­weazu, chief exec­u­tive offi­cer at Nigeria’s Cen­tre for Dis­ease Con­trol told Politi­co.

There is rea­son for con­cern. Dur­ing the 2009 H1N1 influen­za out­break, wealthy coun­tries advance-ordered near­ly the entire glob­al sup­ply of vac­cines, buy­ing vir­tu­al­ly all the vac­cine com­pa­nies could man­u­fac­ture,” accord­ing to a research paper pub­lished by the Nation­al Cen­ter for Biotech­nol­o­gy Infor­ma­tion. The WHO entered into nego­ti­a­tions with man­u­fac­tur­ers and appealed for dona­tions, but this still left the devel­op­ing world with lim­it­ed sup­plies com­pared to devel­oped coun­tries,” the paper notes.

The fact that the Unit­ed States is recus­ing itself from pret­ty much all glob­al coop­er­a­tion does not bode well for equi­table dis­tri­b­u­tion of a poten­tial vac­cine. As of July 15, more than 150 coun­tries had either joined, or expressed inter­est in join­ing, the Covid-19 vac­cines glob­al access (COV­AX) facil­i­ty, orga­nized by the World Health Orga­ni­za­tion, Gavi (fund­ed by the Gates Foun­da­tion, the U.S. gov­ern­ment and oth­er nations) and oth­er inter­na­tion­al orga­ni­za­tions. In the words of Sci­ence Mag­a­zine, COV­AX Facil­i­ty seeks to entice rich coun­tries to sign on by reduc­ing their own risk that they’re bet­ting on the wrong vac­cine can­di­dates.” The effort is a pub­lic-pri­vate part­ner­ship, and, accord­ing to Rutschman, is an imper­fect mech­a­nism.” She explains, I would be very hap­py if we could have a COV­AX struc­ture that’s more equi­table and fair towards coun­tries that can’t pay as much.” Yet, she under­scores, it is bet­ter than noth­ing,” because at least it is an inter­na­tion­al­ized approach.”

Yet, so far, the Unit­ed States has declined to join this COV­AX Facil­i­ty effort. And in May, when the Euro­pean Union called for an inter­na­tion­al meet­ing to dis­cuss the equi­table dis­tri­b­u­tion of a poten­tial vac­cine, the Unit­ed States declined to attend the meet­ing, as did Rus­sia, India, Brazil and Argenti­na. In addi­tion, the Unit­ed States — along­side India and Rus­sia — declined to join the the Access to Covid-19 Tools Accel­er­a­tor,” which was launched by the World Health Orga­ni­za­tion to pro­mote col­lab­o­ra­tion among coun­tries in the devel­op­ment and dis­tri­b­u­tion of Covid-19 vac­cines and treat­ments,” as Rutschman explained.

Accord­ing to Bak­er, this iso­la­tion­ist, Amer­i­ca first” approach is a risky gam­ble — for the Unit­ed States, as well as the rest of the world. After all, this fail­ure to coop­er­ate puts the Unit­ed States at a dis­ad­van­tage if the first suc­cess­ful vac­cine is not under its con­trol. The impli­ca­tion,” he says, is that we are going to have peo­ple in the Unit­ed States die if it isn’t a U.S. vac­cine. And the oth­er way around, we are pre­pared to let peo­ple around the world die because it is a U.S. vaccine.”

Sarah Lazare is web edi­tor at In These Times. She comes from a back­ground in inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ism for pub­li­ca­tions includ­ing The Inter­cept, The Nation, and Tom Dis­patch. She tweets at @sarahlazare.

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