Russia trying to steal COVID-19 vaccine research, intelligence officials in the US, UK, Canada say

Russia trying to steal COVID-19 vaccine research, intelligence officials in the US, UK, Canada say
Intelligence officials said Thursday, July 16, 2020, that Russian-based hackers are targeting COVID-19 vaccine research in the U.S., U.K. and Canada. (Bill Hinton/Moment Editorial/Getty Images, File)

Russian hackers are targeting organizations involved in COVID-19 vaccine development in the U.S., the U.K. and Canada, likely seeking information on the development and testing of the drugs, intelligence officials said in a report published Thursday.

In the report, published by the United Kingdom's National Cyber Security Centre and joined by the group's counterparts in Canada and the U.S., officials said a cyber espionage group called APT29 or Cozy Bear "almost certainly" operated as "part of the Russian intelligence service."

The U.K.'s foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, called the cyberattacks "completely unacceptable" Thursday in a statement.

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"While others pursue their selfish interests with reckless behaviour, the UK and its allies are getting on with the hard work of finding a vaccine and protecting global health," he said, adding that British authorities will work with their allies "to hold perpetrators to account."

Officials with NCSC said Thursday that Cozy Bear frequently uses spear-fishing techniques and custom malware known as "WellMess" and "WellMail" to gain access to targeted organizations.

University of Notre Dame associated professor Mike Chapple, who teaches cyber security and previously served as an Air Force intelligence officer, told The New York Times that the cyberattacks were unlikely to have an immediate impact on global public health.

“The potential harm here is limited to commercial harm, to companies that are devoting a lot of their own resources into developing a vaccine in hopes it will be financially rewarding down the road,” he said.

Officials in the U.S. previously linked Cozy Bear to cyberattacks on the Democratic National Committee in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election, CNN reported. Thursday’s report marked the first time the group had been linked to cyberattacks connected to the coronavirus pandemic.

In April, Reuters reported that FBI Deputy Assistant Director Tonya Urgoretz said there was evidence that state-backed foreign government hackers have broken into companies and research institutions that are conducting research related to COVID-19. A senior U.S. intelligence official told BBC News in May that the government warned medical research organizations of efforts by foreign spy agencies to steal data about attempts to create a vaccine for the novel coronavirus.

More than 3.4 million cases of COVID-19 have been reported in the U.S. since the pandemic began, according to numbers compiled by Johns Hopkins University. The U.S. leads the world with the most coronavirus cases and the highest number of deaths with more than 137,000 killed by the viral infection, according to Johns Hopkins.