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COVID-19: James Bond in a white coat

  • Jonathan Eyal

    The Straits Times/Asia News Network

  /   Mon, July 20, 2020   /   02:45 pm
COVID-19: James Bond in a white coat A researcher works in the laboratory of the Amsterdam UMC, in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, on May 28, 2020. - Griffioen's team is developing a vaccine against the COVID-19 disease caused by the novel coronavirus. (AFP/Koen Van WEEL / ANP)

As scientists worldwide scramble for a vaccine, spooks are equally busy in a different, high-stakes coronavirus battle.

"We can say one thing: Russia has nothing to do with these attempts; we do not accept such accusations."

This was how the official spokesman for Russia's President Vladimir Putin responded last week to accusations from Britain, Canada and the United States that Russian spies were targeting pharmaceutical companies and medical laboratories in Western countries, with the aim of stealing research into a COVID-19 vaccine.

The denial was fully expected; nations rarely own up to the activities of their intelligence services.

But the real surprise is that some observers were still surprised by such allegations. For the spying outfits of most countries have been in the forefront of the fight against the coronavirus pandemic right from the start of the current emergency.

The battle against COVID-19 is the new frontier for every self-respecting intelligence agency around the world.

And today's James Bond is much more likely to be caught clutching a laboratory sample vial - preferably neither shaken, nor stirred - than a cool glass of martini.

The intelligence agencies were, of course, the first state institutions which raised the alarm about the onset of the mysterious flu-like infections which started appearing in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

Precisely when that happened and which intelligence agency was first to report the onset of the coronavirus pandemic remain hotly disputed questions.

But it is already evident that the top Western intelligence services - particularly those of Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and the United States grouped around the so-called Five Eyes arrangement - alerted their political masters about the onset of the pandemic from at least the middle of December last year, weeks before the Chinese government admitted that it faced a health emergency.

It is also significant to note that, while the medical services and first aid organizations of most countries have yet to face a proper inquiry into how prepared they were for the pandemic and how well they bore the brunt of what followed, the world's leading intelligence services have already faced such a critical scrutiny from governments which accused them of failing to provide adequate warning.

As is often the case with alleged "intelligence failures", politicians tend to accuse their spies of "failing to connect the dots" by not alerting them early enough about the global significance of what were initially isolated cases of infection in a second-tier Chinese city, while the spooks reply that they supplied all the required information, and that it wasn't their fault that politicians failed to act on files presented to them.

Still, it is obvious that most Western intelligence agencies had little expertise and even less interest in identifying and tracking eruptions of lethal diseases and that this affected their abilities.

Their spies simply spent too much time trying to acquire the design blueprints of an opponent's missile which may or may not prove to be a threat in years to come, and far too little in tracking biological pathogens which have the power to inflict massive and immediate damage.

The whole concept of what constitutes national security and what should be a top target for intelligence services has been overhauled because of the COVID-19 experience; the next head of Q-Branch, the gizmo-obsessed fictional research and development division of James Bond-movies fame, could well be an epidemiologist.

Yet, even before these more profound, institutional changes are implemented, the world's major intelligence agencies have already transformed their activities. As the coronavirus spread, spies were busy trying to find out how other nations were faring in handling the pandemic; the information was used to inform decision-makers about the possibility that some countries may not be publishing accurate statistics.

But the most direct involvement of intelligence services was in procuring health equipment such as masks, surgical protective gear and disinfectant gels, all of which were in critically short supply.

The most spectacular - if only because it is relatively well documented - example of this is the involvement of the Mossad, Israel's intelligence service, not only in directing medical supplies, often by sending its agents to outbid other government contractors in order to snatch complete batches of equipment as they were leaving factories, but also in acquiring the technical know-how and production blueprints of ventilators and other breathing apparatus to treat critically ill patients.

All of Mossad's agents and collaborators were mobilised for this effort, and Mr Yossi Cohen, the Mossad boss, dealt directly with the leaders of Israel's hospitals in identifying their needs.

Nobody was therefore surprised that, when Israel's Health Minister fell ill with the coronavirus, Mr Cohen had to go into quarantine as well; so close were the links between a politician and a chief spy. Nor was there much surprise when the Israeli government announced that Mr Cohen's tenure as Mossad chief, which was due to end this month, will be extended by another year.

The morality of such stealthy efforts is, of course, debatable. Yet, hundreds, if not thousands, of lives of Israelis may have been saved by Mossad's actions, and although other intelligence services prefer to avoid Israel's characteristically macho bravado on such matters, they, too, were engaged in similar activities.

Seen from this perspective, therefore, the race to acquire or steal clinical information about the development of COVID-19 drugs and vaccines is entirely predictable.

In May, Iranian hackers were caught trying to penetrate the clinical databases of Gilead Sciences, the US-based producer of remdesivir, a drug which may improve the survival chances of critically ill coronavirus patients.

And a far more and intense international race is under way to track developments of a vaccine for the coronavirus; an astonishing 155 vaccines are registered as under development, with about 25 of them being tested on humans.

In theory, whoever comes up first with the vaccine is very likely to license it to other nations, and production is likely to take place in many countries at the same time.

Scientists at Oxford University, now considered to be in the forefront of the search for a vaccine in conjunction with pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca, have already teamed up with R-Pharm, a Russian drugs company based in Moscow, to produce whatever successful vaccine emerges in Oxford for the Russian population as well.

That agreement is touted by the Russian authorities as evidence that they did not need to spy on the British university and its scientists.

Sadly, the Russian argument is unpersuasive, for a variety of reasons.

First, there is no question that even if a vaccine is found, it will be some time before it will percolate down in sufficient quantities to billions of people around the world, regardless of how many production-sharing agreements are in place; that's why the US has pledged to pay AstraZeneca US$1.2 billion (S$1.67 billion) upfront now, in return for securing 300 million doses of a potential Oxford vaccine.

And the biggest current nightmare for any head of government in the world is the time lag between the discovery of the vaccine and the availability of sufficient supplies to immunize the entire population.

For, how would a leader be able to explain to his or her people that they must continue to die from the coronavirus while others do not, simply because there are not enough vaccines to go around?

The ability to have the vaccine straightaway whenever it comes on stream is now one of the top priorities for governments.

And who can help in that respect more than one's own spies?

Furthermore, key countries which have their own advanced vaccine projects also want to know as early as possible whether their techniques are likely to work, or whether their current research may turn out to be a waste of precious time and money.

Take, for instance, the fundamental distinction between the efforts of China and those of Western nations. In trying to develop a vaccine, China's SinoPharm has invested in an older but well-established technology: that of producing a so-called "inactivated" vaccine made by growing the whole virus in the lab and then killing it.

However, Western competitors use newer if less well-proven technologies targeting the protein coating of the virus to trigger off an immunity response.

Wouldn't China want to know early enough whether its line of inquiry is doomed?

And wouldn't Western nations want to know whether the Chinese approach is successful?

Under normal circumstances, such races were left to commercial confrontations between individual companies. But the current pandemic has illustrated the importance of government involvement in such battles, and intelligence agencies are just one component of that endeavour.

Oxford scientists are already claiming that they have noticed a surprising resemblance between their vaccine approach and what Russian scientists say they are working on.

And if politicians are terrified of seeing their nations left behind in the race to acquire the vaccine, just think of the huge triumph of being the first nation to develop a vaccine.

If the first effective vaccine emerges in China, not only would all the questions about how the coronavirus pandemic started simply vanish, but China would also be able to claim that its system of governance has conclusively provided its effectiveness.

If, however, the vaccine emerges in the US, much of the criticism of President Donald Trump's handling of the health crisis would fade away.

And if the vaccine comes out of the labs at Oxford University, there is little doubt that Prime Minister Boris Johnson will claim this as a triumph not only for British science, but also for Britain's decision to leave the European Union, and much else besides.

Of course, many of these claims would be far-fetched, if not outright comical.

But that is beside the point, for, as far as politicians everywhere are concerned, the dangers of being left behind are simply too huge, while the potential advantages of being the first are endlessly alluring.

And it must be said that Russia's spooks and cyber hackers may be justified in feeling put upon. For when it comes to this game, all intelligence services - both those of friends and those of adversaries - are engaged in the same activity.

Either way, the race for the vaccine resembles the race for the moon between the US and the Soviet Union half a century ago.

And it heralds a long-term spying interest in health sciences which will reshape the priorities and the work of future generations of spooks for perhaps another half century.