It's OK If Countries Hack Each Other's Vaccines

Warnings of Russian hacking by Western governments underscore that a Covid-19 vaccine shouldn't be something anyone can 'steal' in the first place.
July 27, 2020, 12:00pm
It's OK If Countries Hack Each Other's Vaccines
Image: Polina Tankilevitch

In the 1950s, polio outbreaks caused more than 15,000 cases of paralysis annually in the U.S. Fewer than 1 percent of polio cases lead to paralysis, so the true number of cases may have been closer to 1.5 million each year. After Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine was introduced, cases of polio plummeted, and the disease was eradicated from the U.S. in 1979. 

The same year the vaccine was deployed nationwide, journalist Edward R. Murrow asked Salk who held the patent for the vaccine. He answered, “There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?"

We should be reminded of Salk’s response today, as countries are racing to develop a vaccine for the novel coronavirus, a disease that has already infected millions and taken a tragic toll on human life. Recent declarations from Western intelligence agencies that Russia may be attempting to steal Western countries’ vaccine research data makes the question all the more pressing: should a country be able to claim ownership over a vaccine in the first place?

Some scholars and organizations say no. Instead, they’ve proposed alternatives that are open-source, free, and equitable, throughout a vaccine’s development to its distribution.

Last week, the U.S., U.K., and Canadian governments announced that the hacker group APT29, also known as Cozy Bear, primarily targeted the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine in an attempt to access information about the research as well as medical supply chains. Russia has denied involvement in the alleged hack.

It’s important to consider why Western intelligence agencies made the alleged attempted hacking public, said Austin Carson, a political science professor at the University of Chicago who studies secrecy and intelligence. One reason may be that these nations wanted to set boundaries for cyberespionage and censure Russia’s actions as out-of-bounds, he said.

“There are a whole bunch of unwritten rules of the road [in espionage], and those have been worked out for centuries,” Carson said. “But with cyber, we have no idea what the hell the rules of the road are.”

By signalling vaccine research is off-limits, Western nations are re-affirming that they consider it to be sensitive information that they own. If APT29 had been successful in their attempts and Russia produced a vaccine from stolen research, the private pharmaceutical companies developing vaccines would lose significant profits, Carson said. 

In the long-term, such a hack could impede America’s drug development pipeline. Carson added that pharmaceutical companies may not pour as many resources into future vaccine races if there is potential for their results to be stolen and distributed without credit.

This argument is also used to counter calls for making a coronavirus vaccine freely available, said Kayum Ahmed, the division director for Access and Accountability at the Open Society Public Health Program. However, the hundreds of vaccine candidates currently being researched suggest that there is an incentive to innovate, even amid calls for a free vaccine.

What does a free vaccine, or “people’s vaccine,” mean? Multiple organizations are trying to address this question at different levels, in real time. The Open COVID Pledge is one grassroots approach that binds its signatories to share any intellectual property related to the COVID-19 pandemic free of charge. Intellectual property already shared through the pledge include artificial intelligence algorithms from IBM, Bing queries related to COVID-19 from Microsoft, and a patent for reducing emergency transport time from AT&T.

The World After This

Another initiative, called the COVAX Facility and created by the vaccine nonprofit Gavi, is partnering nations that are able to finance the purchase and distribution of a coronavirus vaccine with those that cannot. More than 150 countries have submitted expressions of interest to join the Facility, including over half of the world’s G20 economies. If and when a vaccine becomes available, the COVAX Facility aims to deliver enough doses of vaccine to cover the most vulnerable 20 percent of every participating country’s population.

The COVAX Facility has an “aspirational goal of equitable access,” but how it gets there will depend on which countries end up joining it, said Ruth Faden, the founder of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics. Countries should be ethically bound by a form of mutual reciprocity, where they are free to pursue their own interests but must be mindful of how their actions impact other nations’ abilities to do the same, Faden said.

“Participating in the COVAX Facility is one way that countries can both pursue the interests of their own residents and help realize the goal of global equity,” she said. To date, the U.S. has not expressed interest in joining the Facility.

Other vaccine alliances have been established for a much smaller group of beneficiaries. In June, France, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands formed the Inclusive Vaccines Alliance and secured up to 400 million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine for their respective nations. 

Such initiatives, which are regional rather than global, aren't panaceas. According to Ahmed, this type of agreement disadvantages countries outside the alliance and is an example of what he calls “vaccine sovereignty.”

“[The Oxford-AstraZeneca agreement] suggests that the colonialism that we see evidenced in European and American deployment of the vaccine as an instrument of power is, in many ways, supported by the pharmaceutical industry and some research universities to obtain access to potential COVID-19 vaccines” Ahmed said.

Of course, there's no guarantee that Russia would distribute a vaccine in an equitable or ideal way even if it were to secure one via hacking. “Their motives are not pure, and their motives are almost certainly involved in Russian national interest,” Carson said. 

Still, the very idea that a vaccine in a pandemic, which by definition affects countries worldwide, can be a football to be protected by or stolen from nations is a symptom of a dysfunctional system. 

Ahmed said that the pharmaceutical companies racing to develop vaccines are driven by a profit-centered, capitalistic system, which is at odds with the collaborative nature of science. Moreover, since many of these companies’ trials are being funded by taxpayer money in the U.S. and U.K., it’s not ethical to claim intellectual property rights over a publicly funded vaccine.

Instead, Ahmed suggested that countries should harken back to their own responses during the early stages of the pandemic.

“Open access to knowledge was what the response to COVID-19 was when the details of the virus first became available. We can't seem to think of any downsides to sharing knowledge about the vaccine.”