Why is this interesting? - The Medical Espionage Edition

On intelligence, strategy, and the value of a cure

Colin here. When you think about high-stakes, state-sponsored espionage, the usual tropes come to mind: nuclear secrets, military R&D, corporate M&A. But research medicine isn’t exactly the first thing that comes to mind. Yet. 

As the world has been ravaged by COVID, the race for the cure, and any research or data that could lead to it, has been propelled to the front of the list in terms of intelligence-gathering priorities. Aspen Institute staff writer Zack Dorfman, one of the sharpest minds on the intelligence beat, recently joined Axios and came out with a very interesting report that got a bit buried in the news that is rightfully dominating the world right now. 

According to his newsletter Codebook, “U.S. officials recently announced an uptick in Chinese-government affiliated hackers targeting medical research and other facilities in the United States for data on a potential COVID-19 cure or effective treatments to combat the virus.” 

In May, The FBI issued a public bulletin calling out foreign actors for targeting, “US pharmaceutical, medical, and biological research facilities to acquire or manipulate sensitive information, to include COVID-19 vaccine and treatment research amid the evolving

global pandemic.” 

Why is this interesting?

This should not surprise. As Dorfman notes, intelligence and espionage are ways countries further their strategic and tactical objectives. And it’s hard to think of a more strategic objective than a COVID vaccine. We tend to think about the first-order benefits of the vaccine, mainly healthy people, and stabilized economies. But vaccines also represent a superpower in terms of business, diplomacy, and strategic alliances. It is something that could, very quickly, re-align the world along certain lines. 

Here’s how Dorfman unpacks it:

The country that’s first with a vaccine will, in theory, benefit immensely. Elections may be won or lost because of it. Industries and entire economies hang in the balance. Social stability may depend on vaccine access.

There are also subtler benefits of a vaccine: the soft power accrued to whoever develops and shares it internationally, as well as the potential profits from what should be a global, compulsory, vaccination campaign — and one that may be required at regular intervals, like a flu shot.

According to reporting from the Times, it isn’t just China and Russia behind the cyber actions.  “More than a dozen countries have redeployed military and intelligence hackers to glean whatever they can about other nations’ virus responses. Even American allies like South Korea and nations that do not typically stand out for their cyber abilities, like Vietnam, have suddenly redirected their state-run hackers to focus on virus-related information, according to private security firms.” 

The tensions here are obvious. From a research standpoint, international cooperation will help arrive at a solution sooner. But who arrives at a vaccine finish line first will undoubtedly be a seismic strategic advantage. (CJN)

Newsletter of the Day:

Thanks to a tip from WITI contributor Edith Zimmerman (EZ), we’ve been obsessed with The Browser. It regularly surfaces great reads that somehow elude my radar elsewhere, which makes it incredibly vital. Also, their audio editor, Caroline Crampton, recently did an MMD for us, which you should go read if you missed it! (CJN)

Quick Links:

  • An interesting company called Zipline, delivering medicine via drone to remote/underserved areas (CJN)

Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

Why is this interesting? is a daily email from Noah Brier &Colin Nagy (and friends!) about interesting things. If you’ve enjoyed this edition, please consider forwarding it to a friend. If you’re reading it for the first time, consider subscribing (it’s free!).

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