It's a popular belief that humans when faced with a common threat will band together to counter the threat. That may be so at a national level but does not apply internationally. As Lord Palmerston noted in 1848: "Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests" - and that is just as true today.
A classic example is the international response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Instead of working together, nation-states have blamed China and the World Health Organisation (WHO) for their delayed reaction, spread fake news about COVID-19, concealed the facts about COVID-19 in their own countries, stockpiled medical supplies for their own use - or sold them at inflated prices, sought to leverage COVID-19 to further their national interests, and actively conducted espionage against vaccine research.
Although no vaccine has completed clinical trials, there are multiple efforts in progress internationally to develop a safe effective vaccine, and there have been a number of claims about fast progress, particularly by universities and commercial labs. There has even been a marketed vaccine. On May 21, 2020, the US Food and Drug Administration made public the cease-and-desist notice it had sent to North Coast Biologics, a Seattle-based company that had been selling a "nCoV19 spike protein vaccine".
In fact, a vaccine for an infectious disease normally takes several years to develop, and no vaccine exists so far for a coronavirus infection. The WHO does not expect an effective vaccine against Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome CoronaVirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) - the causative virus for COVID-19 - to become available before the middle of 2021. If so, this timeframe should provide lots of opportunities for spying on research data.
COVID-19 research is being conducted mainly by government labs, universities and pharmaceutical companies. The aim of espionage against these organisations is to gain information to leapfrog the research phase to get one's own vaccine into production as soon as possible and not be reliant on foreign sources.
On July 17, the UK's National Cyber Security Centre claimed that drug companies and research groups were being targeted by a group designated APT29 (Advanced Persistent Threat group 29 - also known as "Cozy Bear"). (APT is the intelligence descriptor for the most sophisticated and well-resourced type of malicious cyber-adversary.) Cozy Bear is a Russian hacker group believed to be closely linked with the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR).
While Western fingers have been pointing at the usual cyber-espionage suspects (Russia, China, North Korea and Iran) there are many other players who could be conducting medical espionage, including some of the Five-Eyes partners (although not against each other), and other "allied" nations with advanced cyber-espionage capabilities - notably France, Germany, South Korea, Singapore, and Israel.
There are enormous profits to be made by whoever can develop an effective vaccine and mass-produce it quickly.
In risk management and business continuity studies, it's taught that commercial organisations with good intelligence are best placed to recover first and permanently take market share from their competitors, then position themselves as market leaders. Timing is a key factor. The same holds true for nation-states.
Even before the pandemic has peaked, some national leaders (including Presidents Trump, Putin, Xi and Bolsonaro) have been far more interested in prematurely getting their economies back on track and staying in power, than they have in saving the lives of their fellow citizens.
There are enormous profits to be made by whoever can develop an effective vaccine and mass-produce it quickly. (The US will pay up to $1.7 billion to fund the most promising clinical trial and secure 300 million doses of vaccine.) This potential has attracted criminal hackers who hack for financial gain, selling what they have acquired to whoever will pay the most. Sometimes these hackers are freelancers and at other times, like APT29, they have a close working relationship with a host government.
The Australian Cyber Security Centre has recently advised that APT actors are actively targeting Australian health sector organisations and medical research facilities.
Even so, not all information can be obtained by cyber means, particularly from organisations with good cyber-security. However, governments have a range of other intelligence collection options. Foremost (in this context) is the use of well-placed "insiders" - persons with access to sensitive vaccine research information. China and Israel are particularly good at exploiting well-placed members of their diaspora "in the national interest".
Australia is vulnerable to this kind of threat. We have an annual migrant intake of 160-190,000 and limited scope for later denying them - as Australian citizens - access to sensitive employment on security grounds. These ostensibly loyal citizens can sometimes be pressured (particularly by China) to provide inside information through threats against family members in their country of origin.
Looking ahead, the WHO, Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, and Gates Foundation are committing money and organisational resources to the prospect of a generic vaccine for all 200 countries with infected citizens. The WHO estimates a total cost of $11.44 billion to develop and distribute a COVID-19 vaccine worldwide.
To a large extent this is window dressing and wishful thinking, at least for the next several years. The main market for an effective COVID-19 vaccine will be the world's wealthier nations, led by the US. Poorer countries are going to be well down the list for a low-cost life-saving vaccine, particularly when overpopulation - as in Nigeria (and Africa more generally) - is seen as posing a long-term threat to Western interests and the global environment.
- Clive Williams is a visiting professor at the ANU's Centre for Military and Security Law.