The race to produce the first vaccine for coronavirus is a deeply political one, and it is getting uglier.
President Vladimir Putin has announced that Russia has approved the first Covid-19 vaccine. Yet Russia may well be the biggest loser in this particular race, which is one of several within vaccine diplomacy right now.
Russia has announced the approval of ‘Sputnik V’, purposely named after the first satellite to be sent into space. By invoking the Soviet Union’s space race with the West, Putin is using the search for a vaccine to demonstrate technological prowess and boost national pride.
Yet there is every chance the Sputnik V vaccine will crash – first within Russia then with collateral damage elsewhere depending on how far and fast it really is distributed. For the Russian vaccine has been given its certificate of registration without critical Phase III human trials, to the dismay of scientists worldwide and Russia’s own Association of Clinical Trials Organizations (ACTO), which works to promote Russia as a clinical trial destination. ACTO’s job just got a lot harder. Only two early-stage trials are in the public domain for Sputnik V; 38 participants in one, 38 in another. Privately, more than these 76 people have been inoculated if reports swirling since April are to be believed, which may amount to the sense of a critical mass of people ‘tested’, who have not dropped dead, and thereby creating false confidence in the vaccine.
There is also the issue of stolen data. In July, Russian military intelligence was implicated by Canada, UK and US intelligence agencies as being behind APT29 (also known as The Dukes/Cozy Bear) cyber attacks on vaccine organisations. For example, both Canada (with vaccine candidate Ad5-nCov) and the UK (with ChAdOx1-S) have been trialling non-replicating viral vector vaccines like Sputnik V.
Putin is playing Russian roulette within vaccine diplomacy, for an untested vaccine can be more harmful than no vaccine. For without transparency over trial protocols and published peer-reviewed results, there is a fair chance Sputnik V produces serious adverse reactions not yet known, gives a false sense of immunity thereby actually increasing the rate of transmission, is simply not trusted overseas, and risks making any second attempt at national immunisation all the harder.
Yet Russia is not the only country flagrantly breaking rules in the quest to tackle the virus and produce a vaccine with high export potential. For the surge in vaccine nationalism shows no signs of slowing down worldwide, and it is turning nasty.
Stealing for Vaccine Advantage
For months, Western intelligence agencies have warned of cyber attacks on vaccine research organisations, by hackers backed by the so-called CRINK countries (China, Russia, Iran and North Korea) – what the US Justice Department called a ‘shameful club of nations’.
In May, the UK’s Foreign Secretary warned of malicious actors actively targeting organisations responding to the pandemic and the FBI issued a warning specifically about China. In the US in July, two Chinese nationals were indicted for hacking for China, four Chinese military scientists were arrested for visa fraud, and the US government shut down the Chinese consulate in Houston considered ‘at the epicentre’ of Chinese military theft of intellectual property including vaccine research.
As the first country with access to Covid-19 data and institutes with extensive coronavirus research, China is well-placed to develop a Covid-19 vaccine. Beijing knows that being able to lead in the global response to this crisis could go a long way in redeeming China’s international image that has been tarnished by it. Yet Beijing’s cover-up over what actually happened in Wuhan and its lies over Covid-19 statistics means most of the international community simply may not trust claims regarding the safety and efficacy of Chinese vaccines. China’s potential scientific successes within vaccine diplomacy may be greatly hampered by Beijing’s political follies.
News coverage earlier this year pointed to Iran backing the APT33 (also known as ITG18/Charming Kitten), cyber attacks on the World Health Organization and Covid drugmaker Gilead Sciences. The previous month, the Iranian president ordered a focus on developing a vaccine and, in July, Iranian officials announced its domestic candidate had passed the initial tests. The regime badly needs some good news for, even before Covid-19 hit Iran, 2020 has been a politically tough year. The Soleimani assassination, the downing of flight 752, the lowest electoral turnout on 23 February (42.6%) since the Islamic revolution of 1979, and the rock-bottom price of oil amid the campaign of sanctions from the US have all administered heavy blows to the regime. Iran was a massive vector for Covid-19 across the Middle East, even as many of its leaders denied this, before succumbing themselves to the virus. The sense of urgency is clear and Iran wants to turn this crisis into an ambitious opportunity to become a major pharmaceutical exporter in the near future.
For years North Korean cyber criminals have brought billions of dollars into the coffers of the hermit country. Recent reports point to increased activity of North Korea’s APT38 (also known as Lazarus Group/Hidden Cobra), the group behind the 2017 WannaCry ransomware outbreak, and the targeting of European and US online shoppers during Covid-19 lockdown. Despite reporting ‘not a single case’ of Covid-19 from the start of the pandemic until 26 July, one week later North Korea announced its own vaccine was in clinical trials. This vastly expensive gamble appears to be an attempt to demonstrate the Supreme Leader’s ability to protect his people, showcase North Korea’s technological prowess, and possibly beef up a biological weapons arsenal. North Koreans may have no choice but to accept Kim Jong Un’s choice of vaccine but the international community would in no way trust a vaccine produced from a standing start by the secretive kingdom.
Luckily for Global Britain, the Oxford University/Astrazeneca vaccine is a genuinely strong candidate following preliminary results published in The Lancet in July. The UK vaccine generated ‘robust immune responses’ in all participants in its early stage trials, and Astrazeneca is close to securing deals amounting to 2 billion doses worldwide. For example, Brazil has upped its order from 30 million in June to 100 million; Japan has agreed to buy 120 million doses; China has done a deal for up to 200 million doses; Russia’s R-Pharm has signed to distribute throughout multiple regions; and the Serum Institute of India is on board to supply one billion doses for low and middle-income countries.
US heavyweight Pfizer in collaboration with Germany’s BioNTech, new-comer into the vaccine market Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson appear to have the most accelerated candidates within the US’s internal vaccine race – ‘Operation Warp Speed’ – to begin delivering 300 million doses to Americans in January 2021.
There are concurrent vaccines races in play. Russia has declared itself first to approve a Covid-19 vaccine – a race to simply ‘be first’, regardless of scientific standards.
China may well be the first big country to try claim national immunisation, despite being the most populous. For President Xi Jinping’s domestic standing, the narrative of superiority in the vaccine race is crucial to uphold. And yet a paradoxical complication is that among the Chinese companies developing vaccines, there is a race to set-up in high-risk countries. As China appears to have the virus under control with its extensive restrictions, these companies need to look abroad for concentrations of cases – a partial explanation for ethically dubious ‘pretests’ on state employees and its People’s Liberation Army.
On the flip side, countries unable to develop a domestic vaccine are jostling in the race to secure timely access to jabs. Mexico, for example, aims to conduct human trials for US and Chinese companies, with a view to securing production rights.
While these races all involve speed against the virus, there is a slower track in which the UK can go for gold.
After the 2012 Olympics, the UK committed to promoting the creation of a 'lasting legacy', to harness the UK's passion for sport to increase grassroots participation and exploit opportunities for economic growth offered by hosting the Games. There is a clear opportunity now for the UK to commit to a 'lasting legacy' in international global health and scientific R&D, igniting fresh interest in science and health up and down the country as well as Global Britain taking a pioneering and genuinely leading role. For while at the moment it is a sprint to the finishing line for a vaccine, the UK's ability to compete at elite vaccine level is down to years of scientific research, rigour and innovation.
For the sake of all countries including their own, leaders need to uphold the principle of science over politics, and appreciate that innovation is complex and takes time. Indeed, the worldwide blitz on Covid-19 needs to be led by science on scientific terms, not politicians.
‘Operation Warp Speed’ might be wise to keep in mind Benjamin Franklin’s advice that ‘haste makes waste’. And Vladimir Putin ought to remember that although Russia was first into space with Sputnik, it was the US that won the technology race which Sputnik unleashed. In short, the one who proclaims victory first is not always the winner. In all these races, there are relatively few participants – but the consequences of their actions fall on billions of us.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.