The Race to a COVID-19 Vaccine Ignites a Cold War-Type Era with Russia
Jeremy Levin, chairman of the global Biotechnology Innovation Organization.
The COVID-19 pandemic is not only an international health crisis, but a burgeoning geopolitical exercise for Russia to win the hearts and minds of a large portion of the world while undermining the West.
“This is a prime example of vaccine nationalism,” Jeremy Levin, chairman of the global Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO), told BioSpace. The results could have significant consequences for Western nations and their pharmaceutical industries for decades.
Russia’s concerted disinformation campaign is a case in point. While usually not false, the information is sensationalized, according to the Alliance for Securing Democracy.
The website for the EU delegation to Azerbaijan lists key instances of Russian disinformation, grouped largely into the categories of conspiracy theories related to big pharma, Bill Gates and the deep state, Russian superiority, vaccine ineffectiveness, and Western discrediting of the Russian vaccine. The comments have been linked to four sites frequently used by Russian intelligence.
“By manipulating data, Russian intelligence agencies are putting the global battle against COVID at risk,” Levin said. “Worse yet, establishing websites to promote false information about the data from Pfizer and Moderna will put millions at risk and prolong the pandemic. The only beneficiary of Russia’s disinformation is the COVID-19 virus.”
“The Kremlin has decided to send out disinformation at a time when unity is required. This is part of Russia’s overall foreign policy,” Levin said. “Russia’s long-term foreign policy has been to fragment the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the EU.”
In the past, Russia attempted fragmentation through oil and gas policies. For example, in January 2009, it suddenly cut gas exports to Europe by 60%, leaving six nations without gas during a bitter winter. Now, it’s using vaccines as a wedge between countries.
Because of the current vaccine disinformation campaign, issues related to vaccines are being exacerbated. The campaign is getting results, too, as another BioSpace article details. “You see political fragmentation in the E.U., where various member states – notably Italy – want to administer the Sputnik V vaccine instead of the AstraZeneca vaccine.”
“It isn’t a question of risk/benefit,” Levin said. “That will be determine by the European Medicines Agency (EMA). I was delighted to see the data that seems to show comparable efficacy of Sputnik V with that of other vaccines.”
Levin’s complaint is that disinformation harms the biopharma industry’s reputation and throws doubt onto the safety and efficacy of highly effective vaccines, thus undermining the public’s confidence not only in the vaccine but in medical experts.
Pfizer’s vaccine is a prime target, but AstraZeneca is being pulled into the fray, too.
Several nations have voiced concerns about its use in certain age groups. This week, nearly a dozen European nations suspended administration of the AstraZeneca shots after reports from Denmark and Norway that it caused blood clots. AstraZeneca, the EMA and the World Health Organization each said the clots do not appear to have been caused by the vaccine.
The concern, Levin said, is that those issues are being amplified by parties that are not privy to the scientific data.
“The real data is in the hands of AstraZeneca and has been made public, but there is a tremendous level of disinformation designed to make it difficult for the public to understand the merits of one vaccine,” Levin said.
This benefits the West’s foes in two ways: it sows dissention among NATO allies and provides Russia’s $1.5 trillion economy with much-needed cash.
“Russia’s economy depends on an economic relaunch, which was harmed by the depression in oil prices and the COVID downturn,” Levin noted. (Russia’s oil and gas industry lost 70% of its value when oil prices dropped from $70 to $20 per barrel.) “If it can displace competitors’ sales, it can get those sales for itself. This is an intricate set of processes underpinned by a sophisticated disinformation program.”
The goal, Levin said, is to displace America and advance its own foreign policy by “deepening the divides in Western societies. Estonia’s foreign intelligence agency reported last year that the Kremlin predicted the pandemic would force all Western nations to focus on internal issues,” and that nationalism would arise. “That’s happened.”
Biotech companies aren’t looking the other way, but “…they are focusing on science and medicine,” Levin said. “The role of the biotechnology and biopharmaceutical industry is to generate top quality medicines based on science and medicine and supported by rigorous regulatory review and approval. The industry will continue to do just that: deliver science, medicine, quality, and therapeutic excellence. It is deeply disappointing that the Russian government is using its organs of state to try to undermine these principles.”
That leaves the U.S. response to the government. The Biden Administration has vowed “to fight (disinformation) with every tool we have,” according to a widely-quoted press briefing by White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki.
“I believe you will see an unprecedented investment…a $1 billion investment… in vaccine information,” Levin predicted.
“This is an unfortunate, unnecessary moment of attack,” Levin continued.
Viruses don’t know borders. If people stop being vaccinated, they allow the virus to develop a safe haven, which allows more variants to be generated, thus extending the pandemic.