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6 August 2020

Pandemic brinkmanship: the geopolitics behind the race for a vaccine

How competition between nations could undermine the fight to eradicate Covid-19.  

By Felix Light

When news broke in July that Western intelligence agencies had identified Russia as the likely culprit behind the hacking of a Covid-19 vaccine candidate being developed by Oxford University, Moscow’s denial was swift.

“I don’t believe in this story at all,” Andrei Kelin, Russia’s ambassador to the UK, told the BBC. “There is no sense to it.”

He may have had a point. Only days later, a major Russian drug maker inked a licensing deal to reproduce the very same vaccine for the Russian market. Meanwhile, Russia’s own pharmaceuticals sector is sounding ever more bullish about its own chances of producing a cure. In July, the Gamaleya Institute, a Moscow-based research facility linked to the Russian defence ministry, even claimed that regulatory approval for its own vaccine candidate is imminent.

But if Russia will soon have its own homegrown vaccine, then why bother with the alleged industrial cyberespionage? The answer may lie in the emerging geopolitics of the novel coronavirus.

Russia is not alone in being accused of pandemic brinkmanship; both Iran and China have allegedly hacked vaccine research, with the latter being ordered to close its consulate in Houston, Texas as a result. To some experts, all three cases speak to a disturbing geo-politicisation of Covid-19 vaccination.

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“The vaccine development process has become a political competition, with every country looking after its own interests first,” says Kalipso Chalkidou, director of global health policy at the Center for Global Development, a Washington, D.C. based think tank. “A pandemic is necessarily a global problem, and requires a global response. However, it’s very hard to sell leaders on shipping vaccines to other countries before their own people have received it.”

Moreover, as a number of vaccine candidates move through clinical trials, experts are increasingly concerned that this attitude of national one-upmanship could undermine the global fight against the virus. Last week, an essay in Foreign Affairs warned against “vaccine nationalism”, as a “morally and ethically reprehensible” impulse that may yet sabotage distribution efforts.

Government protectionism in response to the pandemic is nothing new. As the crisis dawned, governments were quick to ban exports of personal protective equipment and ventilators, while Donald Trump is reported to have attempted to lure CureVax, a German biotech firm into relocating to America and producing a vaccine there, raising fears in Berlin that it would be made available to Americans only.

According to Mark Galeotti, an expert on the Russian security services, it is this increasingly competitive approach to vaccination worldwide, reinforced by the adversarial worldview that holds sway in the Kremlin, that could have driven the alleged efforts to hack the Oxford University vaccine tests.

“Aside from the very real fear of being left out of a future vaccine, a successful Russian candidate would be a huge boost to the country’s soft power,” he told the New Statesman.

The appeal of vaccine nationalism over multinational cooperation stretches far beyond just Russia, however, as the 2009 swine flu epidemic made clear. Despite pledges to ensure equitable distribution of the swine flu vaccine, wealthy countries, including the US and Australia, banned exports until their own populations had been fully inoculated. The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that up to 575,000 people, predominantly in the developing world, may have died as a result.

The last decade has also done little to restore trust in multilateral solutions. With an American president sceptical of international cooperation to the point of demonstratively quitting the World Health Organisation, and a new cohort of nationalist leaders in office around the world, relying on increasingly flimsy multinational cooperation to secure vital medical supplies has never looked a riskier bet.

Even Trump aside, the outlook for vaccine altruism is bleak. Though world leaders from France’s Emmanuel Macron to China’s Xi Jinping have spoken of a vaccine as a public good to be made universally available, their idealism may not go far towards securing worldwide access. Many of the most promising state-led vaccine projects, most notably the US’s Operation Warp Speed, will prioritise full vaccination of their sponsor states before sending supplies overseas. As such, non-producing countries will struggle to obtain doses even after a candidate is officially approved for use.

Furthermore, should vaccine distribution become universal, even the richest countries may struggle to actually administer the drugs. In May, in a whistleblower’s report, former director of the United States’ Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, Rick Bright warned that it could take two years to produce the required 850 million syringes and needles to vaccinate the US population alone. Combined with a long-standing worldwide shortage of the sand used to make medical-grade glass vials, tensions over basic medical supplies look set to worsen.

With nation states pursuing their own narrow interests, a lack of effective international governance is compounding the problem. COVAX, a vaccine purchasing pool backed by the WHO, has ambitious goals to buy up dosage for poorer, non-vaccine producing nations and more than 75 supporting countries, including the UK, have formally expressed interest in participating. But in practice the scheme is entirely dependent on the willingness of wealthy countries to sell their own vaccines. “We simply don’t have the institutions we need to supervise distribution,” Kalipso Chalkidou points out. “It’s especially difficult given the WHO’s weakness and the hostile attitudes of the US and China”.

This institutional failing raises difficult questions about what vaccine distribution will look like. For middle income countries that are neither rich enough to produce their own vaccines, nor poor enough to qualify for support through COVAX, there may be a temptation to leverage geopolitics for vaccine access.

A particular worry is that international conflict over vaccine supplies, so far mostly confined to hacking, could begin to make itself felt offline, with potentially destructive consequences. Mark Galeotti suggests the same logic behind alleged Russian hacking might drive countries like Iran and North Korea, internationally isolated and unlikely to be prioritised for vaccine supplies, to manipulate flows of oil, gas, or refugees to bargain for quicker help. “No one else is going to help these countries, so they may just think they have no other options,” he said.

Many experts now anticipate a tense few months of geopolitical wrangling once a vaccine is approved, with under-resourced international organisations being unable to make up the difference.

“Non-Governmental Organisations are not going to have the financial purchasing power of the industrialised countries so will find it difficult to compete on a level footing,” says Professor David Salisbury, a public health expert at Chatham House. “Irrespective of statements from politicians, I suspect altruism will come into play only after their own population needs have been fulfilled.”

Felix Light is a freelance journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union.

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