Policy experts have suggested that the type of espionage in these cases isn’t against any established cybersecurity rules of the road — which points to a need to establish new rules. The problem with that approach is that few of the primary players appear interested. The Chinese hackers charged on Tuesday have reportedly undertaken a years-long effort to snatch trade secrets, sometimes on their own behalf and sometimes on behalf of the state, flying in the face of the pact that government signed with the United States five years ago. President Trump, for his part, has unilaterally expanded intelligence agencies’ mandate to include practices such as embarrassing hack-and-dumps that this nation has in the past condemned.
This insistence on escalation rather than cooperation is also what makes the vaccine snooping as insidious as it is unsurprising. The immediate harm of an adversary speeding the development of a lifesaving medicine amid a pandemic is admittedly unclear. But it is possible to imagine China exploiting that medicine as a domestic moneymaker, or as leverage over developing countries to whom it will play the munificent benefactor. This points to the larger problem: There are appropriate avenues for every nation to purchase vaccine candidates. There are also appropriate avenues for ensuring that when a vaccine comes, it comes to the whole world regardless of who develops it or who has the ability to pay. Yet the default approach for China and for Russia wasn’t to pursue any of those avenues but, rather, to resort to criminality.
The United States would have an easier time sitting astride the moral high horse if it were contributing to vaccine-sharing efforts itself. Yet just as the White House has been uneager to work on building cyber-operational norms with friends or with foes, it has sent the signal that it will pursue an “America First” approach to wiping out the disease. Rather than joining in initiatives to bolster global vaccine availability, it has announced its withdrawal from the World Health Organization and purchased nearly all available stocks of the key antiviral drug remdesivir.
The United States and China in particular have been playing a coronavirus blame game over the past few months. The reality is that every country will benefit from every other country having access to a vaccine. They should be figuring out how to share the wealth, not how to steal it.