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Russian Cyber Sovereignty: One Step Ahead

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Authors: Alexander Tabachnik  and Lev Topor*

Cyber warfare is becoming more prominent and frequent than ever before in the international arena. Struggle for hegemony, influence and power pushes international actors, mainly states, into developing their cyber capabilities to spy, sabotage and influence other actors. Globalization and the proliferation of knowledge, know-how, expertise and technology in general have made cyber warfare relatively cheap and easy to execute in comparison with conventional warfare. In fact, international law regarding cyber warfare, specifically the lack of it, as well as newly emerging norms between states, have made cyber warfare especially lucrative. That is, since there are no biding norms or laws regarding cyber operations, and since it is extremely difficult to attribute a cyber attack with a real attacker, traditional military or economic punishment is difficult to justify. This makes deterrence slow, blunt and ineffective.

In this article, we seek to discuss the importance of the Russian cyber domain and its position in the international struggle for power, influence and national security. Specifically, we argue that Russia’s cyber domain acts as a barrier from foreign cyber operations, especially since the West has escalated its operations against Russia in recent years. We also argue that in the field of national security and national interests within the cybersphere, Russia has an advantage over other powers such as the United States or the United Kingdom. Further, we elaborate and discuss the structure, vulnerabilities and importance of cyberspace in international relations, as well as the current state of Russia’s defensive cyber domain.

Less-regulated cyber domains, such as those of the U.S. and UK, are vulnerable and prone to foreign attacks not only by their adversaries but by rogue and anonymous hacking groups and cyber criminals [1]. Interestingly, clandestine surveillance programs such as the American Presidential Policy Directive 20 (PPD-20), which was leaked by Edward Snowden in 2013, allows the U.S. to spy on citizens and foreigners, but not to completely protect itself from cyber operations. It is difficult to guarantee both security and privacy. However, since cyber attacks are on the rise, should security not come first?

Interestingly, in that regard, the Russian cyber domain is “one step ahead” of other international actors, mainly global powers such as the U.S., the UK, most of the European Union and others. Due to the problem of attribution and the increase in the practice of cyber warfare, Russia perceives the cyber domain, cyberspace, as a threat to Russian national security and stability. On the one hand, the U.S. unsuccessfully tried to present the norm of privacy as more important than security and executed espionage and regulations with hiding initiatives such as PPD-20. On the other hand, Russia acted with transparency when it placed the norm of security ahead of privacy and accordingly changed its regulation of the cyber domain. Indeed, criticism has been raised over recent Russian initiatives such as the Yarovaya Law or the Sovereign Internet Law. The criticism and concerns are legitimate. However, we argue that in respect to the international struggle over power and security Russia has the lead over Western powers. Philosophically speaking, what good is privacy if there is no national security. Moreover, Russian privacy is undermined by foreign forces (i.e., States, cyber criminals) that spy and exert influence.

Cyberspace: Structure and Vulnerabilities

Cyberspace is complex and ubiquitous. By the definition of the U.S. Joint Chief of Staff (JCS), cyberspace is “the domain within the information environment that consists of the interdependent network of information technology (IT) infrastructures and resident data. It includes the Internet, telecommunications networks, computer systems, and embedded processors and controllers.” Moreover, the U.S. JCS refers mostly to the operational level of virtual cyber operations. At the same time, in practice, cyberspace is comprised of several layers, each with its own unique characteristics. Each layer facilitates and acts as the infrastructure for the next one. Thus, as suggested by Yochai Benkler or by Nazli Choucri and David D. Clark, there are four layers to cyberspace; the physical foundations, the logic layer, the information layer, and the users. These layers affect IR and IR affects them.

The physical layer of cyberspace is the infrastructure. It consists of the physical elements which are necessary for the function of the internet. Fiber optic cables, nodes of cables, satellites, cellular towers, servers, computers, and other physical components all serve as a base for the next layer (the logic). Fiber optic cables are of great importance since they interwind the world with mostly submarine cables. These cables make up approximately 95% of the intercontinental telecommunications traffic, with the rest being satellite communication used for military and research. Without such an extensive layout, the internet would have been in use only by state actors and not the general public, globally. The vulnerabilities of this layer lie within the physical elements themselves – cables can be cut, damaged, hacked, eavesdropped. Furthermore, physical damage is difficult to repair (in most cases) as it requires special ships and equipment. In the ce of satellite damage, a new one would probably be needed. Repairs are difficult and expensive.

The next layer is logical. The central nervous system of cyberspace is responsible for routing information and data, from clients to servers and back to clients. This happens through systems such as the domain name system (DNS), Transmission Control Protocol (TCP), internet protocols (IP), browsers, software that makes use of physical foundations, and websites, to name key examples. The vulnerabilities of this layer are numerous, while manipulations to the communication systems and denial of service (DoS) are just a few examples.

For instance, in regard to the physical and logical layer, Russia was accused of attacking the American power grid. The U.S., as it was mentioned earlier, also attacked the Russian power grid. Another example is that during the Cold War, American ships and submarines conducted espionage and eavesdropping operations on Soviet undersea communication cables. Today, both the U.S., Russia, China, and other capable powers conduct underwater espionage operations.

Next is the information layer, comprised of encoded text, photos, videos, audio, and any kind of data stored, transmitted, and transformed through the IPs. The main vulnerability of this layer is the information itself, which is susceptible to manipulation by malicious or unwanted means such as disinformation material and malware. Foreign actors can also steal valuable and protected information. Needless to mention that all of the mentioned types of information can be manipulated and adapted as needed for cyber operations.

The final layer consists of the users who shape the cyberspace experience and its nature by communicating with each other, creating and spreading content. The main vulnerability of the users are other manipulative users (i.e., foreign agents, criminals, terrorists). In this regard, for instance, the global Covid-19 crisis has also seen an “infodemic” alongside it. A “global battle of narratives” is taking place, as argued by the European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, on March 24, 2020. China is accused of promoting theories suggesting that the American Army was responsible for introducing the disease while visiting Wuhan in October 2019. Thus, while the outbreak might have occurred in Wuhan, this kind of disinformation campaign shifted the perception of origin away from China and blamed the virus on the U.S. “Not wishing to waste a good crisis,” China (as well as others) is promoting an intelligent and data-driven campaign against its global adversaries.

Cyber Warfare: A Tool of International Security

Since Westphalia, states longed to preserve their sovereignty. States, especially great powers, usually prefer to avoid conventional conflict and to avoid MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction), as was experienced during the Cold War. Whenever states do intervene in the affairs of others, they do so to acquire territory, domains or power to protect ethnonational groups, as well as economic, military or diplomatic interests. States also intervene due to ideological reasons and, lastly, to keep or adjust the regional or global balance of power. Hence, cyberspace serves as the perfect domain to avoid conventional military conflict and even a MAD situation while trying to obtain the reasons for intervention. Thus, states and other IR actors do so by using cyber warfare strategies and tactics.

Cyber warfare could be broadly defined as the use of cyber weapons and other systems and means in cyberspace for the purpose of injury, death, damage, destruction or influence of international actors and/or objects. Acts of cyber warfare can be executed by all types of IR actors, including individuals, organizations, companies, states, and state proxies. Cyber warfare is an integrated part of the defense and offense strategy used by many international actors. Russian military officials do not use the term “cyber warfare” as a standalone term. They prefer to conceptualize it within a wider framework of information warfare – a holistic approach which includes, inter alia, computer network operations, electronic warfare, and psychological and informational operations.

Regarding IR and international security (IS), cyber warfare can be viewed from two different perspectives. A revolutionary perspective and an evolutionary one. From a revolutionary perspective, cyber warfare and cyber weapons are a revolution of military affairs to some extent, in the same way that sailors once perceived the development and widespread of airplanes. That is, much like airplanes, cyber weapons can transform strategies and shift the balance of power in the international arena. From an evolutionary perspective, cyber warfare and cyber weapons serve merely as a tactical development with no drastic strategic changes. As mentioned before, IR actors still seek power and influence over others and are willing to fight over it, as they did for centuries. We assume that the Russian approach to the cyber domain can be defined as evolutionary. This argument was also proven to be valid for the term “Hybrid Warfare,” as recently published by Vassily Kashin.

Generally, the arsenal of cyber warfare tactics includes acts of espionage, propaganda, denial of service, data modification and infrastructure manipulation or sabotage. Further, according to the Tallinn Manual on The International Law Applicable to Cyber Operations, some tactics such as espionage or data modification and false information spread are not illegal. At the same time, cyber attacks can be regarded as kinetic attacks and retaliation can be justified only if the victim can reveal the true and full details of the perpetrator — a very limited and rare phenomenon nowadays.

Consequently, the characteristics of cyber tactics make them very attractive for use. Countries like the U.S., UK, Russia, China, smaller regional powers such as Israel or Iran, rogue states like North Korea and even terror organizations and human rights organizations are all shifting towards cyberspace.

Russian Cyber Sovereignty: A Barrier Against Foreign Influence

Russian authorities perceive cyberspace as a major threat to Russian national security, stability as the flow of information in cyberspace could undermine the regime. Social networks, online video platforms, secure messaging applications and foreign-based internet mass-media remain a great concern as Moscow has no control over information on these platforms, which are either created or influence by Russia’s global competitors such as the U.S. or the UK. Yet, as we show, cyberspace is a domain only partly controlled by the authorities, enabling a relatively free flow of information while Russia still seeks to take some necessary precautions.

Russian authorities, through legislation and cyber regulation, strive to control Russian cyberspace in order to prevent or deter, as much as possible, the dissemination of information which may mar the positive representation of its regime, or any activity which may endanger the regime’s stability. Therefore, Russian authorities seek to control the content of the information layer and the information circulating in Russian cyberspace.

Generally, Russian legislation directed at control over domestic cyberspace consists of two major categories, which are also interconnected. These categories can be defined as legal-technological and legal-psychological. The most prominent legal-technological efforts by Russian authorities consist of the following measures: the Yarovaya Law; Russia’s “sovereign internet” law; SORM system’s installation mandatory; and the law making Russian applications mandatory on smartphones or other devices. Simultaneously, the legal-psychological efforts consist of the three major measures: “disrespect law”; “fake news” law; and the new “foreign agent” law. As further explained, these are meant to pressure Russians and others from spreading disinformation from within.

The Yarovaya Law obliges provision of encryption/decryption keys (necessary for decoding transmitted electronic messages/information) to Russian special services (such as the FSB) upon request by distributors of information such as internet and telecom companies, messengers and other platforms that allow the exchange of information. Moreover, according to this law, Big Data attributed to activity in Russian cyberspace must be stored in Russian territory, while the special services should have unrestricted access to this data [2]. For example, companies like Facebook or Google must store information concerning data and activities of their Russian users in Russian territory and provide unrestricted access to the Russian special services.

Furthermore, the Decree of the Government of the Russian Federation from April 13, 2005, (number 214) with changes from October 13, 2008, regarding SORM (Russia’s System of Operational-Investigatory Measures), requires telecommunication operators to install equipment provided by the FSB. This allows the FSB and other security services to monitor unilaterally and unlimitedly, without a warrant, users’ communications metadata and content. This includes web browsing activity, emails, phone calls, messengers, social media platforms and so on. Moreover, the system has the capability of Deep Packet Inspection (DPI). Thus, the SORM system is one of the major tools helping implement and regulate the Yarovaya Law. While the Yarovaya Law is criticized by many for harming citizens’ privacy, it could be extremely effective for its initial and official purpose, which is counter-terrorism and foreign missionary interventions.

On December 2, 2019, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a legislation bill requiring all computers, smartphones and smart devices sold in Russia to be pre-installed with Russian software. Afterwards, the government announced a list of applications developed in Russia that would need to be installed on the mentioned categories of devices. This legislation came into force on July 1, 2020. Apparently, an initiative will be promoted later on, calling to register devices with government-issued serial numbers. This will allow Moscow to tighten control over end-users through regulation, monitoring and surveillance. These kinds of laws can help Russia avoid the need to rely on technology companies for crime and terror forensics. For instance, such cases took place in the U.S., for instance, after the December 2019 terror attack at a Navy base in Florida.

On May 1, 2019, President Vladimir Putin signed the law on Russia’s “Sovereign Internet,” effectively creating the “RuNet” — Russia’s internal internet. The goal of this law is to enable the Russian internet to operate independently from the World Wide Web if and when requested by Moscow. In practice, this “kill switch” allows Russia to operate an intranet, a restricted regional network such in use by large corporations or militaries. This network gives authorities the capacity to deny access to parts of the internet in Russia, potentially ranging from cutting access to particular Internet Service Providers (ISPs) through cutting all internet access in Russia.” With risks of foreign cyber operations such as disinformation or even physical eavesdropping, this “kill switch” can prevent Russia from suffering a dangerous offensive. This can also mean that Russia could initiate cyber warfare but keep itself protected, at least from outside threats.

At the same time, the legal-psychological efforts consist of three laws directed at the prevention of distribution of unreliable facts and critique directed at the government’s activities and officials. For example, the law which regulates “disrespect” allows courts to fine and imprison people for online mockery of the government, its officials, human dignity and public morality. This law is relevant to the dissemination of information through informational-telecommunication networks. Additionally, the “fake news” law also outlaws the dissemination of what the government defines to be “fake news” – unreliable socially significant information distributed under the guise of reliable information.

These laws give Roskomnadzor (The Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media) and the Kremlin’s censorship agency to remove unreliable content from the web. Moreover, the law prescribes heavy fines for knowingly spreading fake news and prescribes ISPs to deny access to websites disseminating fake news in the pretrial order following an appropriate decision issued by Roskomnadzor. Effectively, this puts a negative incentive to cooperate with foreign propaganda campaigns or other unwanted forces.

Next, the “Foreign Agent” law applies to any individual who distributes information on the internet and is funded by foreign sources. Interestingly, YouTube channels can be defined as such. According to this law, Russian citizens and foreigners can be defined as foreign agents. Consequently, all materials (including posts on social media) published by an individual who receives funds from non-Russian sources must be labeled as foreign agents. The commission of the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs are endowed with powers to recognize individuals as foreign agents. Consequently, foreign agents will be obliged to create a legal entity and mark messages with a special mark.

Furthermore, individual foreign agents are subject to the same requirements as non-profit organizations recognized as foreign agents (the law regarding non-profit organizations was adopted in 2012). Therefore, foreign agents will be obliged to provide data on expenditures and audits regarding their activities to the Ministry of Justice. It should be noted that these administrative obligations are time consuming, complicated and expensive — they are aimed to discourage foreign agents from their activities. Overall, the purpose of the legal-psychological efforts is to discourage the population from participating in any king of anti-government activities in cyberspace. This law is of similar nature to the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) enacted by the U.S. in 1938.

Conclusion: Structural Advantage and Strategic Superiority

In her article from August 25, 2017, Maria Gurova asked, “How to Tame the Cyber Beast?” Since offensive cyber operations are becoming more prominent and frequent, including cyber crime and cyber terrorism, and since these attacks are becoming more political, Russia chose to protect itself from foreign forces and global adversaries by regulating and monitoring its cyber domain directly, in contrast to Western proxy regulation practices. Interestingly, it has also created a “Kill Switch” which, if threatened by foreign forces, will allow the RuNet to keep internal internet connection — a significant need, especially for the largest country in the world. In fact, while other, less strategically sophisticated, countries will have to rely on outdated means of communication in the case of a major cyber attack, Russia can remain relatively safe and connected.

The negative aspect of the aforementioned regulation is the incompatibility to Western norms, mainly to the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) decisions. This incompatibility can undermine Russian economic and socio-political relations and developments with the U.S., UK and EU, pushing Western hi-tech companies away. These regulations may also harm freedom of speech in the Russian cyber domain, as users may feel threatened to criticize the authorities. This is despite the fact that the regulations are to be implemented mostly on security-related issues. However, Western proxy regulation practices are having trouble addressing this issue as well.

All in all, Russia has the lead over Western powers — it controls all of its own cyberspace layers. In fact, as an international actor, Russia has an offensive and defensive strategic edge over its global competition. As articulated in this article, Russia has built a strategic “firewall” against foreign cyber attacks. Currently, there is no binding international law that forbids cyber attacks. In this case, the anarchy in IR and IS must be dealt with domestic solutions by each international actor. For instance, it was reported that the American Central Intelligence Agency conducted offensive cyber operations against Russia and others after a secret Presidential order in 2018. Of course, Russia had also conducted cyber and hybrid operations against its global adversaries. A U.S. special report from August 2020 concluded that Russia had created an entire ecosystem of cyber operations. This means that while Russia has a relatively secure infrastructure, the U.S., with no proper regulations, is one step behind. In this regard, China is also a step ahead of the U.S. and the EU.

*Lev Topor, PhD, Senior Research Fellow, Center for Cyber Law and Policy, University of Haifa, Israel

[1] We ask to clarify that the U.S. and the UK do regulate their cyber domains extensively. However, they mainly focus on privacy and not security and conduct some regulation through Public-Private Partnerships (PPP). For more, see Madeline Carr or Niva Elkin-Koren and Eldar Haber.

[2] Metadata is stored for a period of one year and data (messages of internet users, voice information, images, sounds, video etc.) for a period of six months.

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Implementation of virtual reality and the effects in cognitive warfare

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Photo: Lux Interaction/Unsplash

With the increasing use of new technologies in warfare situations, virtual reality presents an opportunity for the domain of cognitive warfare. Nowadays, cognitive skills are treated equally as their physical counterparts, seeking to standardize new innovative techniques. Virtual reality (VR) can be used as a tool that can increase the cognitive capabilities of soldiers. As it is understandable in today’s terms, VR impacts the brain directly. That means that our visual organs (eyes) see one object or one surrounding area, but brain cells perceive and react to that differently. VR has been used extensively in new teaching methods because of the increased probability of improving the memory and learning capabilities of students.

Besides its theoretical teaching approach and improvement of learning, VR can be used systematically towards more practical skills. In medicine for example students can have a full medicine lesson on a virtual human being seeing the body projected in 3D, revolutionizing the whole field of medicine. If that can be used in the medical field, theoretically it will be possible to be used in combat situations, projecting a specific battlefield in VR, increasing the chances of successful engagement, and reducing the chance of casualties. Knowing your terrain is equally important as knowing your adversary.

The use of VR will also allow us to experience new domains relating to the physical health of a person. It is argued that VR might provide us with the ability to effectively control pain management. Since VR can stimulate visual senses, then it would be safe to say that this approach can have higher effectiveness in treating chronic pain, depression, or even PTSD. The idea behind this usage is that the brain itself is already powerful enough, yet sometimes when pain overwhelms us we tend to lose effectiveness on some of our senses, such as the visual sense. An agonizing pain can blurry our vision, something that we cannot control; unless of course theoretically, we use VR. The process can consist of different sounds and visual aids that can trick the mind into thinking that it is somewhere that might be the polar opposite of where it is. Technically speaking, the mind would be able to do that simply because it works as a powerful computer, where our pain receptors can override and actually make us think that we are not in such terrible pain.

Although the benefits of VR could be useful for our health we would still need to deal with problems that concern our health when we use a VR set.  It is possible that the brain can get overloaded with new information and the new virtual environments. VR poses some problems to some people, regarding the loss of the real environment and creating feelings of nausea or extreme headaches. As a result, new techniques from cognitive psychologists have emerged to provide a solution to the problem. New technologies have appeared that can desaturate colors towards the edge of the headset in order to limit the probability of visual confusion. Besides that, research shows that even the implementation of a virtual nose when someone wears a VR headset can prevent motion sickness, something that our brain does already in reality.

However, when it comes to combatants and the implementation of VR in soldiers, one must think of maybe more effective and fast solutions to eliminate the problems that concern the confusion of the brain. Usage of specific pharmaceuticals might be the key. One example could be Modafinil which has been prescribed in the U.S. since 1998 to treat sleep-related conditions. Researchers believe it can produce the same effects as caffeine. With that being said, the University of Oxford analyzed 24 studies, where participants were asked to complete complex assignments after taking Modafinil and found out that those who took the drug were more accurate, which suggests that it may affect higher cognitive functions.

Although some of its long-term effects are yet to be studied, Modafinil is by far the safest drug that can be used in cognitive situations. Theoretically speaking, if a long exposure to VR can cause headaches and an inability to concentrate, then an appropriate dose of Modafinil can counter the effects of VR. It can be more suitable and useful to use on soldiers, whose cognitive skills are better than civilians, to test the full effect of a mix of virtual technology and pharmaceuticals. VR can be a significant military component and a simulation training program. It can provide new cognitive experiences based on foreign and unknown terrains that might be difficult to be approached in real life. New opportunities arise every day with the technologies, and if anyone wanted to take a significant advantage over adversaries in the cognitive warfare field, then VR would provide a useful tool for military decision-making.

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Vaccine Equity and Beyond: Intellectual Property Rights Face a Crucial Test

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The debate over intellectual property rights (IPRs), particularly patents, and access to medicine is not new. IPRs are considered to drive innovation by protecting the results of investment-intensive R&D, yet arguably also foster inequitable access to affordable medicines.

In a global public health emergency such as the COVID-19 pandemic, where countries face acute shortages of life-saving vaccines, should public health be prioritized over economic gain and the international trade rules designed to protect IPRs?

The Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs), to which all 164 member states of the World Trade Organization (WTO) are a party, establish minimum standards for protecting different forms of IPRs. 

In October 2020, India and South Africa – countries with strong generic drug manufacturing infrastructure – invoked WTO rules to seek a temporary waiver of IPRs (patents, copyrights, trade secrets, and industrial designs) on equipment, drugs, and vaccines related to the “prevention, containment or treatment of COVID-19.” A waiver would mean that countries could locally produce equipment and vaccines without permission from holders of IPRs. This step would serve to eliminate the monopolistic nature of IPRs that give exclusive rights to the holder of IPRs and enable them to impose procedural licensing constraints.

Brazil, Japan, the European Union (EU), and the United States (US) initially rejected the waiver proposal. That stance changed with the rise of new COVID-19 mutations and the associated increase in deaths, with several countries facing a public health crisis due to vaccine supply shortages. The position of many states began shifting in favor of the India-South Africa proposal, which now has the backing of 62 WTO members, with the US declaring support for the intent of the temporary waiver to secure “better access, more manufacturing capability, more shots in arms.” Several international bodies, the World Health Organization (WHO), and the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights have voiced support.

Some countries disagree about the specific IPRs to be waived or the mechanisms by which IPRs should be made available. The EU submitted a proposal to use TRIPS flexibilities such as compulsory licensing, while others advocate for voluntary licensing. The TRIPS Council is conducting meetings to prepare an amended proposal to the General Council (the WTO’s highest-level decision-making body in Geneva) by the end of July 2021.

The crisis in India illustrates the urgency of the situation. India produces and supplies Covishield, licensed by AstraZeneca; and Covaxin, which is yet to be included on the WHO’s Emergency Use Listing (EUL). Due to the devastating public health crisis, India halted its export of vaccines and caused a disruption in the global vaccine supply, even to the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) program. In the meantime, the world’s poorest nations lack sufficient, critical vaccine supplies.

International law recognizes some flexibility in public health emergencies. An example would be the Doha Declaration on TRIPS and Public Health in 2001, which, while maintaining the commitments, stresses the need for TRIPS to be part of the wider national and international action to address public health problems. Consistent with that, the body of international human rights law, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), protects the right to the highest attainable standard of health.

But as we race against time, the current IPR framework may not allow for the swift response required. It is the rigorous requirements before a vaccine is considered safe to use under Emergency Use Authorizations and procedural delays which illuminate why IPR waivers on already approved vaccines are needed. Capitalizing on the EUL’s approved vaccines that have proven efficacy to date and easing IPR restrictions will aid in the timely supply and access of vaccines.

A TRIPS waiver may not solve the global vaccine shortage. In fact, some argue that the shortages are not an inherent flaw in the IP regime, considering other supply chain disruptions that persist, such as the ones disrupting microchips, pipette tips, and furniture. However, given that patent licensing gives a company a monopoly on vaccine commercialization, other companies with manufacturing capacity cannot produce the vaccine to scale up production and meet supply demands.

Neither does a temporary waiver mean that pharmaceutical companies cannot monetize their work. States should work with pharmaceuticals in setting up compensation and insurance schemes to ensure adequate remuneration.

At the College of Law at Hamad Bin Khalifa University, our aim is to address today’s legal challenges with a future-oriented view. We see COVID-19 as a case study in how we respond to imminent and existential threats. As global warming alters the balance of our ecosystem, threats will cascade in a way that is hard to predict. When unpredictable health emergencies emerge, it will be human ingenuity that helps us overcome them. Even the global IP regime, as a legal system that regulates ideas, is being tested, and should be agile enough to respond in time, like the scientists who sprang into action and worked tirelessly to develop the vaccines that will soon bring back a semblance of normal life as we know it.

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Sputnik V in the International Arena

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Over a year since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic in March 2020, the disease is far from under control. Although global case rates on the whole have declined, 15 countries remain near or at the peak of their infection curve. Even countries well below their peak daily infection rates – such as the United Kingdom and Morocco – recently have witnessed an uptick in cases. Just this summer, the virus’ global death toll surpassed 4 million. Fortunately, scientists’ efforts to develop vaccines against COVID-19 have been fruitful: 16 vaccines have been either authorized for emergency use or fully approved. Russia’s Sputnik V is one of the most effective of them, yet one of the most controversial as well.

An important tool in humankind’s fight against the pandemic, Sputnik V is being overlooked by western powers on political grounds.

Sputnik V: controversy and advantages

Much of the controversy surrounding the Gamaleya Institute’s vaccine in western media and political discourse stems from the details surrounding Sputnik V’s approval. Russia’s Ministry of Health issued a registration certificate for the vaccine on August 11, 2020, thus making Sputnik V the world’s first vaccine to be granted regulatory approval for use against COVID-19. Instead of igniting international celebration, this development was met largely with skepticism as many considered the move premature. Typically, vaccines undergo extensive Phase 3 trials before government authorization for use. Sputnik V’s Phase 3 trials, however, did not begin until September 2020, after the vaccine had been registered. Since then, the Russian Ministry of Health’s unorthodox approach to approving the vaccine has been weaponized against Sputnik V.

Western media has also repeatedly called into question Sputnik V’s efficacy and safety. A study in the respected, peer-reviewed medical journal the Lancet, however, found that Sputnik V has an efficacy rate of 91.6% and is low-risk. Although a group of scientists raised concerns about the study’s integrity citing lack of transparency, no major scientific studies demonstrating that Sputnik V’s efficacy is significantly lower than reported have been published to date. Respected western media sources, such as the New York Times and the BBC, cite the Lancet’s figure when reporting on Sputnik V’s efficacy. Meanwhile, a report by the Argentinian Ministry of Health found that Sputnik V is one of the safest vaccines widely used in Argentina. As summarized in the Lancet: “the development of the Sputnik V vaccine has been criticised for unseemly haste, corner cutting, and an absence of transparency. But the outcome reported here is clear and the scientific principle of vaccination is demonstrated, which means another vaccine can now join the fight to reduce the incidence of COVID-19.”

Regardless of such controversy, the vaccine has several key advantages – namely its efficacy, affordability, and transportability. Sputnik V is one of only three vaccines globally with an efficacy of over 90% – the other two being Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. Running at less than $10 per dose on international markets, Sputnik V is the cheapest vaccine in this efficacy range. For comparison, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine runs between $14.50 and $20.00 on international markets, while Moderna’s vaccine sells for between $18.00 and $33.00 a dose. Sputnik V is also much easier to transport than its U.S./German counterparts. The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines must be stored at -70.0°C and -20.0°C respectively, whereas Sputnik V must be kept at a temperature range from 2 to 8°C, meaning that it can be stored in conventional refrigerators. This makes delivering the vaccine notably easier, especially to remote areas. Thus, Sputnik V is poised to make an important contribution to the global inoculation campaign.

Hurdles and victories in the international arena

Russia’s frontrunner vaccine has experienced a mix of hurdles and victories in the international arena. The biggest hurdles are regulatory in nature. For example, one major obstacle preventing the vaccine’s distribution is that the European Medicines Agency (EMA) – the EU agency responsible for authorizing and evaluating medicines – has not yet approved Sputnik V. The EMA is still undergoing its rolling revue of the vaccine, and it appears that approval is unlikely to be granted until September at the earliest. Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi recently raised the possibility that Sputnik may never get the EMA’s approval, casting further doubt on the vaccine’s future in Europe. The EMA’s regulatory hesitancy towards Sputnik V has prevented major EU players, such as Germany and France, from buying millions of doses of the vaccine.

Sputnik V similarly has not yet been cleared for Emergency Use Listing by the WHO. The UN agency found production violations at the Sputnik V manufacturing site in Ufa during a June examination. Although the WHO’s concerns have since been addressed according to Russian Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov, the incident has further put on hold the Russian Direct Investment Fund’s (RDIF) commitment to supply the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund with 220 million doses of Sputnik V. In a similar vein, the RDIF applied for Sputnik V to participate in COVID-19 vaccine access program COVAX earlier this year. Discussions with the Vaccine Alliance Gavi regarding Sputnik V’s inclusion in the COVAX Facility’s Portfolio of COVID-19 vaccines, however, are still ongoing.

Although Sputnik V’s lack of EMA and WHO approval has hampered its international rollout, the ongoing authorization process has not eliminated the vaccine’s global relevance. In fact, the Russian vaccine is currently authorized for emergency use in nearly 70 countries and being used in 45. Two EU member states, Hungary and Slovakia, even have begun inoculating their citizens with Sputnik V without a greenlight from the EMA. Meanwhile, India and Turkey have ordered 250 million and 50 million doses of the vaccine, respectively. One thing is clear: Sputnik V is in high demand internationally despite the regulatory hurdles and controversies it faces. Trust in the Russian vaccine also remains markedly high notwithstanding these challenges. A poll conducted by British market research firm YouGov during February and March of this year found that, of participants who had a preference, 54.0% trusted Russia to produce a vaccine and 33.2% preferred to be vaccinated with Sputnik V. According to the survey, Russia and the United States are tied for the most trusted vaccine producing country, and Sputnik V is the second most preferred vaccine after Pfizer-BioNTech, which 36.6% of respondents favored. The survey featured respondents from the following 9 countries, collectively accounting for 25% of the global population: India; Brazil; Mexico; the Philippines; Vietnam; Argentina; Algeria; the UAE; and Serbia.

Sputnik V has been particularly successful in Latin America, a core region of the United States’ sphere of influence. Repeated polling has shown that Sputnik V enjoys high levels of confidence in Latin American countries, especially Argentina and Peru. The Russian vaccine got an early start in the region when on December 29, 2020, Argentina became the first Latin American country to administer the Sputnik V vaccine to its citizens. Mexico followed suit on February 24 and Nicaragua on March 2, 2021. To the surprise of many observers, on June 4 Brazil joined the list of countries that have approved Sputnik V.

Unfortunately, alongside the success Sputnik V has experienced in Latin America, the vaccine has also encountered a substantial challenge: supply shortages. Both Mexico and Argentina are currently facing shortages of Sputnik V’s second dose – and the problem is not confined to the region. Luckily, Russia’s strategy for eliminating supply shortages not only promises to see more people vaccinated, but also provides an opportunity for Russia to collaborate with its international partners: the country will manufacture vaccines abroad. Starting in July, 5 to 6 million doses of Sputnik V are set to be produced outside of Russia per month. Manufacturing countries include India, South Korea, and Brazil. The Argentine laboratory Richmond produced its first half million doses on June 18. The data sharing and collaboration necessary to manufacture Sputnik V abroad have the potential to increase Russia’s soft power in partner countries.

The other major players

It is crucial to note that Russia’s Sputnik V is only one piece in the puzzle of fighting COVID-19. Although an in-depth review of every country’s current approach to vaccine policy is beyond the scope of this article, a brief overview of the major vaccine providers’ – the United States, the United Kingdom, and China – global vaccine distribution is in store.

Unlike Russia, whose approach to vaccine distribution has been global facing since Sputnik V’s development, the United States initially favored domestic distribution and stockpiling of American vaccines. The Biden Administration has since turned course. The U.S. recently pledged to share 80 million U.S. vaccine doses by the end of June and to purchase 500 million additional doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for lower-income countries over the next year. Pfizer-BioNTech is currently being distributed in 105 countries, Moderna in 55, and Johnson&Johnson in 27.

The United Kingdom’s Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is currently being used in 178 countries, making it the most widely-used COVID-19 vaccine to date. Although evidence that the vaccine is linked to blood clots put a rut in its distribution, the vaccine is performing well internationally. Meanwhile, China’s Sinopharm-Beijing and Sinovac vaccines are being used in 40 and 32 countries, respectively. China has favored international distribution of its vaccines since the beginning of the pandemic and has shipped more vaccines abroad than any other country. The vaccines referenced in this article – among others – have collectively led to 22.2% of the world’s population having received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Conclusion

Western, especially American, media has portrayed Sputnik V in an overwhelmingly negative light. The Russian vaccine is represented more as a political tool than a health solution. Hiccups in the road to Sputnik V distribution are cited as evidence that the vaccine is not to be trusted. This approach to Sputnik V is fundamentally flawed. Regulation and safety inspections are crucial to safe vaccination efforts; finger-pointing and name-calling are not. Ultimately, vaccination should take precedence over politics. Alongside other vaccines, Sputnik V will propel us into a post-pandemic world.

Above all else, Sputnik V is a highly efficacious vaccine against COVID-19. When Sputnik V successfully performs its function – safely preventing vaccinated people from contracting and dying from the virus – a growth in vaccinated individuals’ trust of Russia will organically follow. This happy side effect undoubtedly has the potential to promote Russia’s image abroad and increase the country’s soft power. But even if Russia’s political gains from Sputnik V turn out to be small, humankind’s gains in lives saved will be immeasurable.

From our partner RIAC

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