In US 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 eighteen million and deaths near seven hundred thousand, is playing out along well-worn geopolitical fault lines: Russia, China, and even Iran are trying to steal our vaccine research, US intelligence agencies claim, their warnings dutifully circulated in major media outlets. Yet the fact that US 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.
Major US 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. “US 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 US media outlets could be depicting the search for a vaccine. As Dean Baker, economist and cofounder of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), a left-leaning think tank, tells me, “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 US 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 lifesaving 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 US 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 toward 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 US economy in free fall and led to US 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” US vaccine information. On May 21, Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Rick Scott (R-FL) 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 US secrets.” Van Hollen, along with Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE), 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 US intellectual property.” A similar bill has also been introduced in the House.
Chow notes that fearmongering 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 me 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 me 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, there are 199 vaccines in development and twenty 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 three hundred million doses of a vaccine by January 2021, the US 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 US 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 “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 US vaccine. And the other way around, we are prepared to let people around the world die because it is a US vaccine.”