The Absurdity of the Present: Stealing Vaccine Research

Last week the breaking news in international political/media drama was the Russians hacking vaccine research in Europe and America, and on Tuesday the DOJ charged two Chinese hackers for hacking what Politico called “hundreds of millions of dollars worth of intellectual property and trade secrets” about vaccines for a deadly virus that is currently ravaging humanity.

Right now the world is working on a lot of vaccines, as well as treatments, for and research about the virus. We’re not just trying to end it, we’re trying to pull the virus, and ourselves, out of the fog of war that we’re in right now. Some of that research is ending up as trade secrets and intellectual property, the modern legal equivalent of what was once the secrecy of alchemists.

Russia and China are not rich countries the way the US is, though they are spending their blood and treasure on medical research and treatment just like the rest of us. Journalists and experts, particularly in cybersecurity, have blasted their efforts at hacking European and North American corporations as a kind of greed and cheating when it comes to the vaccines research process.

This all makes sense, from the perspective of the absurdity of the present moment. As Misha Glenny, a cybersecurity reporter who went on the BBC’s Newscast to blast the Russian effort to get medical research data said, “They’re just trying to get a vaccine on the cheap as far as I can see.”

Of course they are. It’s a fucking vaccine for a disease that’s causing a global pandemic.

Before we talk about how important it is to motivate biotech firm Moderna to work on a medicine that could save millions and put the planet to rights again (at least in this one way), let’s talk about where we are right now.

As of this writing, there have been 15 million confirmed cases of Covid-19 and 600,000 deaths. It’s clear there will be millions of deaths before the pandemic is over and millions more maimed from the inside by the disease. There is also the suffering of families and communities as folks bury some of their loved ones and support loved ones who will suffer with the long term effects of Covid-19 for years or decades. There is no global public health infrastructure or even much in the way of public health standards around the world.

Most people can’t get good quality care at the best of times, even though we have the ability as a species to provide it several times over. It’s normally bad and it’s all much worse right now. Pediatric vaccination rates has fallen through the floor the world over, and it could be that millions more children die of preventable diseases than adults of Covid-19, just because Covid-19 has wrecked public health infrastructure so badly. And with economic downturns around the world, there’s no money to pay for routine care which could cost more lives than the disease itself, again.

But there’s reasons things are shut down. The thing about a respiratory virus like SARS-CoV-2 is that it’s so aggressively transmissible that no one is safe until everyone is safe. Despite how much we all hate each other, if Russian and Chinese people can’t vaccinate against both Covid-19 and Measles, we will all pay, in blood, and treasure, and the kind of grief that takes generations to mend.

Will those generations care about Moderna, GlaxoSmithKline, or Sanofi’s Q4 2020?

No, they will not care. They will be as mystified by what we’re doing now, by what we’re valuing now, as we are by the people in history who drank mercury trying to live forever, or attached leeches to George Washington until he died of blood loss, or any of the other stupid things we did that killed people or actively spread disease over the millennia.

We still live with the biological and cultural trauma of the Black Death, and our whole world order was configured by Smallpox. But still, we are ghouls and deatheaters, asking about intellectual property rights when someone is using hacking to try to save lives, for once.

Why is any of this, any of this at all, still a secret? Why isn’t all the data and research being published and collated and poured through by the scientific community the moment the data is collected? Why are we still such ghouls when it comes to public health?

Why do children still die of Measles? Why do 10 million people fall ill with TB every year? Why, in fucking 2020, do people die of fucking Consumption?

We could stop all of this.

But we think health should be a profitable business, like it’s making fancy handbags or golf clubs or something.

We don’t think voting is something you should pay for, or that only the well enough off should be governed. We don’t think streets should turn a profit, or that you should pay a monthly fee to maintain your human rights. We don’t even think you should pay firefighters to save your house, especially since it’s going to set the rest of your city on fire. But we think Chinese people or Russians or you should pay for a vaccine, even though if you can’t, it’s going to set the rest of your city and then the world on fire.

It’s evil, it’s madness, and the fact that it’s just the way things are doesn’t make it even the tiniest bit less absurd. And my colleagues in the media would do well to point that out, and not just leave it to comment sections below their articles and Trevor Noah.

My work for Emptywheel is supported by my wonderful patrons on Patreon. You can find out more, and support my work, at Patreon. Thanks to Ryan Singel.



61 replies
  1. Debra Partridge says:

    I couldn’t agree more. When I saw the news reports yesterday about the hacking of the vaccine, my first and only thought was “Why don’t they just share it?”

  2. dude says:

    I don’t have any more to add to Quinn’s remarks apart from noting that research performed at universities (often by corporate grants or through “public-private” partnerships) prevent giving any intellectual property away. Universities have contractual restraints put on sharing intellectual property whenever they hire researchers and professors. They entitle the institution to control and distribute the fruit of research performed on their premises. I think many people mistakenly assume researchers are inherently able to share their research with the world. Some of that can be done through peer-review in journals perhaps, but application of research is not so freely available.

    • Quinn Norton says:

      This is absolutely the case! and often times publicly funded research ends up going into private coffers exactly this way.

    • Raven Eye says:

      University research can be the gift that keeps on giving — back to the university. If you are seeking an advanced degree and will need the type of data that universities develop, you have to take into consideration what it will cost you to get that data.

      (I worked at a small federally funded university research project for a couple of years. The university got 20% as overhead when the money showed up…I was advised not to refer to that as “skim”.)

  3. Rugger9 says:

    The contrast with Jonas Salk is striking, since Dr. Salk never considered monetizing his polio vaccine. The fact that this is fundamentally a race to cash in first (and patent it for royalties) is a sign of our sad civilization.

  4. earlofhuntingdon says:

    The quip attributed to Gandhi seems about right: When asked what he thought about Western Civilization, he said that he thought it would be a good idea.

  5. Hug h says:

    “Our present economic, social and international arrangements are based, in large measure, upon organized lovelessness.”
    -Aldous Huxley “The Perennial Philosophy“

  6. John Langston says:

    This entire situation regarding proprietary info regarding a vaccine has a surprise to me. I naively thought the every country and drug maker would be working cooperatively and now wonder why all this info wasn’t public domain? Also consider that our own government has also provided $ billions of dollars for presale of unproven vaccines. I would think it would be to our advantage to have real time peer review by the largest possible audience.

    Of course it’s to everyone’s advantage that an effective vaccine is made widely available as soon as possible. I guess it’s to everyone’s advantage except someone making as much profit as they can.

    Remember in Feb, Sec Azar said before congress that the govt wouldn’t control the price of the drug. That was the first hint that the administration had no policy for testing, virus prevention and mitigation, or public health. And still doesn’t.

  7. fikshun says:

    As a musician, I can’t help but wonder why drug makers aren’t willing to create this vaccine for the great exposure they’ll get from it.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      $$$$. And principle. If they don’t charge monopoly prices for a Covid vaccine, next thing you know, they won’t be able to charge monopoly prices for salt water in a plastic bag. Gotta nip that in the bud.

      It’s also why they collectively want to buy the UK’s NHS post-Brexit. How delicious would it be to privatize the Great Satan, the socialist nemesis that started it all. Plus, money and permanent gubmint subsidies.

  8. Ed Walker says:

    Capitalism doesn’t solve problems. It takes money and gives it to capitalists If something useful happens, it’s just a side effect.

    • AndTheSlithyToves says:

      Truer words were never spoken. No worries, though. Donald called Vlad today to assure him his cut was on the way.

  9. Falun Dong says:

    This is all so much hooey. Without any evidence to independently verify any of it, we just have their word for it that the hacking took place. It may or may not be true. Let’s face it, ALL countries who have the capability are hacking one another for information, so these claims of hacking by the Russians and Chinese are not only within the realm of possibility, but are actually highly probable.

    That being said, what’s the purpose of publicly airing the claims aside for political purposes? I believe it is to make it appear in the short term as though an effective vaccine is in the works and America is out in front on this endeavor hence China and Russia hacking to play catchup and cheat because they lack the creative expertise to develop an effective vaccine.

    Here’s the thing. I don’t believe an effective vaccine can be developed for this vaccine in such a short period of time, if ever, when we still know very little about this virus. It’s called a novel virus for a reason. It’s not like other viruses and it’s not even like other SARS viruses. It’s its own beast — a badass beast we have yet to comprehend fully. Believing, in the face of that, there will be an effective vaccine that won’t be worse than the virus itself is equivalent to believing in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy.

    If a vaccine is developed and rolled out, I will not receive it. I’ll wait it out. I do not trust these numb nuts one bit. They’ve already negligently, nay criminally, botched the management of this pandemic from top to bottom. I’ll be damned if I will trust them with the cure to it if a cure is even possible and I don’t believe it is.

    • Rayne says:

      Thanks for this your second comment here at emptywheel. Surely you can think of reasons why a country might want to hack another country’s research — like shortcutting the process to development if they believe they may be cut out of equitable access to a safe and effective vaccine.

      And surely you realize there are something in the ballpark of a hundred or more vaccine research projects underway, with the US and UK not necessarily in the lead since large pharmaceutical companies are transnational and often do research outside either country to avoid regulatory limitations or political disruption.

      As for your anti-vax attitude: great, it’s your body, your choice. Don’t expect us to jump hurdles after a proven vaccine has been available and you get sick anyhow. And don’t expect us to put up with a broad anti-vax agenda here, either. If it weren’t for vaccines half of our forebears would have died in childhood.

      • Rugger9 says:

        With respect to the IP theft, that is old hat for the PRC (and the Soviets back in the day) because it shortened development time by a bunch. It could (as it allegedly did for the early Yankee Class subs – so called since they were a lot like ours then and came from a Revell model as a prototype) lead to unexpected errors (like forgetting the reactor shielding).

        As for anti-vaxxers, I’m amused you’re perfectly willing to have the rest of us get your herd immunity for you with the so-called “risks”. How nice of you to consider our kids expendable to cover for yours.

        • Falun Dong says:

          It’s disingenuous to refer to me as an “anti-vaxxer” when I am no such thing. It’s a lousy and disingenuous debate tactic. I am not your strawman. I don’t believe in herd immunity.

          For the record, my wife and children and I have taken tremendous precautions during this trying time, keeping in mind my daughter and my son and my wife are considered “essential” employees unlike the likes of Stephen Colbert and Seth Myers who get to shelter in place in their resplendent homes and ride out the storm in comfort and security with their multi-million dollar contracts still secure and in place as my loved ones earn crumbs and rebukes on blogs for their sacrifice.

          In fact, I am so fastidious about precautions related to this pandemic, I pleaded with my daughter not to attend protests because she would be putting her life and the life of others in jeopardy by congregating in close quarters, masked or not (she was masked by the way and went anyway despite my pleading).

          I mask up wherever I go and it’s an N-95 mask. I social distance as well. My entire immediate family does the same. I wash my hands religiously and refrain from touching my face. Itches are left unscratched. That’s discipline and I do it for all of you as much as I do it for myself.

          My wife teaches 3 to 6 year olds and she agrees that any vaccine developed by these crooks in such a short window of time would be another catastrophe on top of the catastrophe that is the pandemic. If she is forced to receive the vaccine because of her career, she will no longer teach. Another essential worker will bite the dust. You’ll have to start importing them there will be such a dearth of “essential” workers.

          Fyi, my screen name is a jab at one of Donald J. BigFatAss’s largest and most noteworthy supporters, the Falun Gong. Donald J. BigFatAss is all about and all for a hasty vaccine. That’s all the proof I need to know such a vaccine will not be a good thing.

          • Rayne says:

            Fyi, my screen name is a jab at one of Donald J. BigFatAss’s largest and most noteworthy supporters, the Falun Gong. Donald J. BigFatAss is all about and all for a hasty vaccine. That’s all the proof I need to know such a vaccine will not be a good thing.

            Trump’s corrupt transactionalism does not mean a vaccine will be ineffective. A safe and effective vaccine may be developed which has nothing to do with Trump whatsoever. I’m not going to put up with this broad brushstroke about a vaccine still in development in as many as one hundred different projects, most of which are not affected directly by anything Trump and his administration do at this point.

            Knock it off and let science do its work without trashing it before it can finish. The global public will deal with Trumpism as successful candidates emerge.

            • Falun Dong says:

              Goodbye. You truly are fucked in the head and incorrigible beyond belief. 145,000 dead and counting and your attitude is “it’ll all be good because it always has been.” Fuck off, you nutjob with your head in the sand.

              How much would you like to bet an effective vaccine is not developed for this novel virus? You will lose that bet. Guaranteed. But that’s not what it’s about for you. Everything is politics for the likes of you and you claim per your Twitter handle that your value is providing intelligence? Bullshit. You provide no value. You are valueless and you are NONESSENTIAL.

              • Rayne says:

                Clearly your interest in this site has been extremely short and limited. You’ve definitely not read a thing I’ve written to date for this site about COVID-19. Nor have read much at this site if you think the content here is otherwise removed from politics.

                As for value and essentiality, you are not the judge. Worry about whether you offer any value to others.


      • Falun Dong says:

        Once again, for the record, I am not anti-vaccine in general. Each and every vaccine should be evaluated on its own merits. The majority of vaccines, at least historically, have been proven to have high efficacy. It’s only until recently Big Pharma has concentrated its efforts on Designer Vaccines with dubious efficacy. My children, for example, had all their vaccines but after researching the Shingles vaccine, I refused it for myself even though my physician pushed hard. We also refused the HPV vaccine for our daughter after we researched it fully even though her physician and her school were pushing it. Vaccines are not a monolith and all, these days especially, are not created equally. You must do your due diligence and not succumb to the propaganda.

        Please elaborate on what you mean when you say “proven vaccine?” It’s an extremely important question and not something that should be taken for granted and marginalized. We live in a time of pervasive endemic corruption where anything and everything is exploited for maximum economic gain for a few. Regulatory agencies have been captured by these few so if it’s the captured regulatory agencies providing the proof, well, let’s just say that’s not proof in my book. More proof will be needed. Independent, objective proof. The fox claiming he didn’t eat all the hens and hens’ eggs in the egghouse is proof of nothing except the fox is lying.

    • Vicks says:

      Although I’m trying to see around the corner about a fake break in I think your suspicions have merit.
      Trump has royally screwed up, and hundreds of thousands of Americans are going to die needlessly because of it.
      We are dealing with an administration clearly willing to do whatever it takes to stay in power and nothing should be considered off the table.
      An October surprise of a vaccine with the power to save the world could also save DJT.
      We have been warned repeatedly that these vaccines take time and unless our trusted medical heroes are all in full support of any vaccine obtained at “warp speed” I’m not so sure I would stand in line for it either.
      Back to the break in.
      My suspicion is not that countries want to steal our vaccine data, my suspicion lies in why they were caught so quickly.
      I do believe that some of the Russia hacks during the 2016 election were done to lay the groundwork of “evidence ” should Trump have contested the election. I also believe when the presidency and billions of dollars are at stake, anything that would affect both must be considered a red flag.
      I am fully aware I sound like the conspiracy nuts that are a dime a dozen these days, so to clarify, I don’t have any reason to believe any of this is actually happening, I’m simply pointing out that putting out a vaccine in a reckless fashion to give Trump something to tweet about would just be another day in this administration.

  10. Rugger9 says:

    It seems Jax is out for the RNC after spending I would guess to be a lot of money trying to parachute into FL from NC when Governor Cooper wouldn’t relax COVID-19 rules. DJT then tried Jacksonville and COVID-19 hit a new record today in FL (173 dead) among other issues and the sheriff refused to guarantee his desired scream-fest.

    Doral / Mar-A-Lago in a tele-rally (which the campaign is trying to trademark)?

  11. e.a.f. says:

    Thank you for writing this article. Its about time some one put it in writing.

    its all about the money. its all about the profits. if a vaccine is created you can bet its going to be expensive. In my opinion countries with government funded health care systems such as Western Europe, Canada, Japan, etc. their citizens will get the vaccine. the rest of the countries, good luck.

    We only have to look back at AIDS. While those in the west with health insurance or lived in countries who provided it, were given the latest treatments, patients in Africa and other countries simply died. They didn’t have access to the latest medications.

    We have to look no further than Trump trying to “game” the German company in an attempt to gain control of their research. Well some countries don’t have that kind of money, so they do the next best thing, hack. The U.S.A. IS never going to share, so let the hacking begin.

    If they want to keep it such a secret, just move their computers off line. its real easy.

    an attempt to “steal’ the research is somewhat like stealing food while trying not to starve to death but then it is doubtful the Americans will even provide the vaccine to their own citizens if they can’t afford it. they won’t even provide medical care to those who need it right now in texas.

  12. PeterS says:

    It’s tragic that in the US the likely cost of the vaccine feeds directly into the anti-vax narrative. Not that in countries with free healthcare (OK, paid through taxes) there is no anti-vax sentiment, but it’s weaker. In such countries, like the UK, where people won’t have to pay for a vaccine, the pharma companies are complaining about hacking – naturally, because they’re private.

  13. Falun Dong says:

    Okay, I promise, this is the last I will say about the matter. This is my point. Take it or leave it. The CCP (considering SCMP is their publication), as disingenuous as they may be about this (considering it’s state propaganda), is spot on.

    It has also prompted serious concern among ethicists about an unintended consequence that could be just as dangerous as the illness itself.

    They have warned researchers and public figures not to accept bad science simply out of desperation. Writing in Science magazine, they claim that some scientists have already sacrificed the essential disciplines of methodical rigour and quality control for the sake of speed in the race to find treatments.

    The consequences could be unthinkable, such as putting patients at increased risks, including disability or even death.

    Jonathan Kimmelman, biomedical ethicist at McGill University in Montreal, says there is just as much at stake, if not more, in putting out low-quality findings during a pandemic as outside it. Trials have begun of new vaccines, and of new and existing treatments designed for other diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis.

    But however well-intentioned, mistaken or reckless use of new vaccines or old drugs amid a pandemic cannot only harm the patient and waste valuable resources, it can also jeopardise the public trust that is fundamental to the humanitarian mission of medical science.

    • Quinn Norton says:

      We have years of SARS vaccine research to draw on, and we have multiple agricultural coronavirus vaccines in use right now, and we have phase three trials underway. It’s been thought about, being thought about, and it will be ok. And the main thing the HPV vaccine causes is less cancer.

  14. Smith Mitchell says:

    Well, for some reason I’m not surprised that Russia is mentioned here. The government of this country is used to dirty games, they do not know other ways …

  15. Vicks says:

    When you have a country like Russia that seems to have no lack of imagination when it comes to finding ways to make our country sicker and weaker, wouldn’t it be worth considering that Putin wants the keys to the vaccine for more nefarious reasons than getting rich?
    What, it anything does it mean that Putin has a greedy fan boy who may be feeling that if he is going to win this election he is going to have to steal it?

  16. Tadc says:

    It amazes me there’s not yet a clever name for the denialists who end up hospitalized with a big dose of reality. — emptywheel on Twitter.

    I believe the term MTW is looking for is “hoaxpitalized”, unless she doesn’t consider that clever enough

  17. graham firchlis says:

    Couple of things not mentioned or incorrect above. This bust was barely about vaccine IP. These two had been thieving since at least 2009. FBI only discovered their presence in 2015, took till now to get their identity do counterintel and work up the indictment. Meantime they jacked hundreds of millions of dollars worth of IP (fenced pennies on the dollar but still) along with human rights ngo confidential internal documents for hire by China and others. And a wide swath of US military secrets, scope still undetermined.

    These are bad people, working for bad people. This is a righteous bust. We are the better for it.

    The big news here is our collective and individual cyber vulnerability, already bad and worsening with 100 days left to protect the election and MoscowMitch in recess.

    • bmaz says:

      I do not know you from Adam, do you have a cite? There are commenters here that are trusted enough to make the comment you did, but you are not one of them.

      • Vicks says:

        Most everything graham firchlis mentioned except “military secrets” was describe in the link provided in the post, and #5 in the indictment describes their hacking of defense contractors and stealing data, on, among other things, “a counter chemical weapons system, military satellite programs, and military wireless and communications programs.
        Graham Firchlis is right, it looks like they shut down some very bad guys working for some very bad people.

        • Quinn Norton says:

          They didn’t shut anything down, they just put out some indictments on state employees doing their jobs the same as we do all the time.

          • graham firchlis says:

            These two are indepent operators working both on spec and contract, as your link and the indictment make clear. Thier job was theft, a criminal enterprise, nothing more. They’ve been stealing for a decade or more. The vast majority of their ‘work’ was unrelated to vaccines. Until a few months ago there was no market for coronavirus vaccine IP. Cv19 opened that niche, and these two crooks exploited it for money. They are not heroes of the working class. Just crooks.

            • bmaz says:

              And you are full of shit if you think you, and only you, understand the purpose and meaning of a federal indictment. You are still trying to cover you ass for your previous blarney.

              If you thought you were going to wander in here and pitch bunk, you were sadly mistaken.

          • vicks says:

            Point taken.
            Any thoughts on the timing?
            From the DOJ press release.
            “Today’s indictment demonstrates the serious consequences the Chinese MSS and its proxies will face if they continue to deploy malicious cyber tactics to either steal what they cannot create or silence what they do not want to hear,” said FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich. “Cybercrimes directed by the Chinese government’s intelligence services not only threaten the United States but also every other country that supports fair play, international norms, and the rule of law, and it also seriously undermines China’s desire to become a respected leader in world affairs. The FBI and our international partners will not stand idly by to this threat, and we are committed to holding the Chinese government accountable.”

            Adjusting my view to include the fact that more than likely nothing will happen to these two guys, I’m looking for the “serious consequences” reveal.
            K McCarthy was trying to get something going to sanction countries that were involved in hacking anything covid related, but with Trump there is always that Russia problem…

            • graham firchlis says:

              Hard to know about timing. Fits the China virus bad China mantra. Could be there was nothing to gain under seal but favorable publicity to be had.

              Almost all the international organized crime indictments I signed were issued under seal. Some were not. AUSA and Judge’s decision.

              These indictments have value, even with the accused out of reach. People with excess money and hubris sometimes behave foolishly. Several big fish indicted in my term were arrested as they traveled by Interpol, and two as they entered the US.

              Sometimes they stash money overseas. This indictment includes forfeiture, and we’re pretty good at tracking money.

              These guys robbed internationally, for an international clientele. We got inside, and know who they are. Many threads being pulled.

      • graham firchlis says:

        Not ‘Trusted”? By you? Oh, my stars. I don’t know you from Eve or Adam, but I do know which way the river runs. Researching a topic before commenting can be helpful. Knowing for yourself diminishes the need for trust. Fewer public embarrassments as well.

        • bmaz says:

          Hi there Graham, I don’t know you for squat either. I think your argument and your “source”, whatever it may be, are dubious at best. I am one of the founders here, and have been here from before day one. You, on the other hand, parachuted in about 60 days ago, but have gone hyper only in the last week, and are belligerent to both the post authors and commenters alike, and generally act like you own the place. You do not.

          It does not make a tinker’s damn what you know or think about me, but it does what we think of you. I do the law thing for a living, have not “publicly embarrassed” myself, and don’t need your advice. Further, if you are relying on an indictment or other pleading, as Vicks alleges, link it. And, yes, paragraphs 60-73 set out a dedicated set of assaults on biotech firms working on a vaccine, so your claim it is not really about that falls extremely flat.

          • graham firchlis says:

            Confess I only skimmed through the indictment, tedious things. Line by line I see several references to attempted entry but none of the specified acts claim entry or theft. Didn’t actually happen.

      • graham firchlis says:


        My comment triggered a thread I couldn’t have imagined. Wish it hadn’t.

        With hindsight, I should have prefaced the segue with a comment on the main topic. I enjoyed reading yours and others thoughts.

        IP is a hugely complex issue in which I have longstanding interest, with far more questions than answers. Perhaps another time.

        I didn’t intend to detract from your main point. Sorry it happened.

        • bmaz says:

          Oh, hi, for someone that did not intend that, you sure worked hard to act like that is exactly what you intended.

Comments are closed.