Race for the COVID-19 vaccine: contracts, competition and hackers

Race for the COVID-19 vaccine: contracts, competition and hackers
Source: Al Jazeera

In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, many world leaders and influencers are emphasizing the need for cooperation.

Organizations like the European Union and the United Nations, as well as an assortment of private businesses, charitable organizations and individuals, are working together in order to overcome the coronavirus and its health and economic impacts.

In early May, representatives from 43 countries came together to raise 7.4 billion euros for funding efforts to fight the virus while the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have pledged millions from its investment fund to jumpstart the procurement of medical supplies worldwide.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization (WHO) has been on the forefront of promoting data sharing between countries regarding COVID-19.

Behind the scenes there are other moves taking place that reportedly involve less noble means of securing a vaccine, including competition over lucrative research contracts, militarization over the search for a cure and even accusations of state backed hacking of vaccine information to try and gain an upper hand.

In an attempt to ensure that the vaccine is made in the United States, President Donald Trump reportedly tried to lure a German biopharmaceutical company, CureVac, into selling its research to the US for a “large sum” of money.

The German newspaper Die Welt am Sonntag reported that Trump offered the company as much as US$1 billion to give the vaccine exclusively to the US.

In China, it was reported that scientists associated with Beijing’s Academy of Military Medical Sciences (AMMS) are on the frontline of the country’s search for a cure, which some say is taking on an air of propaganda.

“[China] will not be slower than other countries [in finding a vaccine],” assured Wang Junzhi, an AMMS researcher.

As of April 8, 2020, there were 115 COVID-19 vaccine candidates from laboratories around the world. According to research published in Nature, a prominent academic journal, 78 of these were confirmed as being in the research and development phase. The WHO has confirmed that only a handful of these have been approved for human trials.

Whoever cracks the code by manufacturing a successful COVID-19 vaccine will stand to benefit not just financially, but also from the global recognition that would possibly result in the form of increased political clout and influence.

Research Cybertheft

According to a report by the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), hackers tied to the Chinese government are trying to steal American research on a vaccine and treatments for COVID-19.

This report alleges that “nontraditional actors,” such as students and researchers, are being prompted by the Chinese government to penetrate digital systems to secure “valuable intellectual property” regarding the coronavirus.

Chinese authorities have denied these allegations.

On May 5, the DHS and the United Kingdom’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency released a joint statement alleging that illicit teams of people around the world are targeting pharmaceutical companies, medical research organizations and universities to steal sensitive research on the virus for “commercial and state benefit.”

Meanwhile, hackers linked to Iran were reportedly found by an Israeli security firm to have specifically attacked Gilead Sciences, an American drug company, for research pertaining to the virus, while actors working for the Vietnamese government were alleged to have targeted Chinese digital infrastructure in an attempt to get sensitive information regarding their response to COVID-19.

Crying Foul

With cybersecurity teams seemingly poised to protect national research projects, some emphasize the need for national governments to put strong protections in place to prevent illegal activity. Others, however, say that the political rhetoric around the issue has gotten too heated and that the main focus should be on finding a cure, while being careful not to let the need for security morph into extreme policies.

The FBI has been making visits to universities around the US to warn them about potential attacks on their research, even warning them to be on the lookout for any suspicious activity from Chinese students.

Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton has suggested that the US “take a hard look” as to whether it should allow Chinese university postgrad students, especially those in advanced medical and technological fields, to receive visas to study, arguing that too many of them might go back to China and use their knowledge against US interests.

Other observers have compared the rising fear over stolen research to that of the “red scare” during the Cold War between the US and Russia, when some public officials were adamant that communist infiltrators were reaching high positions in academia and government. Many historians view the period as one filled with undue fear and paranoia.

Equal Access?

Many worry that there will be unequal access to a coronavirus cure after it is produced. If a single country or company has sole rights to the vaccine, it might take time to ramp up production and governments may look to inoculate their populations first.

Others have warned that it may take several years to get vaccines out to all who need them, even in ideal circumstances.

According to experts at the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, at least 70% of the total population needs to be vaccinated or immune to a virus to safely slow its spread. That means that some five and a half billion people might need to be vaccinated against the coronavirus, globally.

For this reason, many officials are urging that world governments and institutions work together to solve the crisis, not look to each other as automatic rivals.
“We will only halt COVID-19 through solidarity,” argued Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s Director General. “Countries, health partners, manufacturers, and the private sector must act together and ensure that the fruits of science and research can benefit everybody.”

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