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Russian hackers accused of targeting vaccine research

July 16, 2020

The UK, US and Canada accused hackers backed by the Russian state of trying to steal information from researchers working on COVID-19 vaccines. Russia rejected the accusations as "groundless."


Cybersecurity agencies in the UK, US and Canada said in a report released Thursday that a network of Russia-backed hackers is trying to steal information on coronavirus vaccine research from academic and pharmaceutical institutions.

The report, published by the UK's National Cybersecurity Center (NCSC), attributed the cyberattacks to a group known as APT29, or Cozy Bear, which it said was "almost certainly" operating as part of Russian intelligence services. 

According to the report, the hackers targeted governmental, diplomatic, think-tank and health care institutions in the UK, US and Canada. 

The NCSC said the hackers scan databases for vulnerabilities, steal authentication credentials to gain access and then deploy malware to upload documents.

When will a coronavirus vaccine be ready?

The group also uses spear-phishing, which is an email posing as a trusted sender to get individuals to reveal information like account credentials. 

It is currently unclear if any information was stolen, and the report did not specify any institutions. However, the NCSC said individuals' confidential information is not believed to have been compromised, the Associated Press reported. 

Read more: Coronavirus half a year on: What do we know so far?

'Completely unacceptable'

UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said that it was "completely unacceptable" for Russian intelligence to target those working to combat the pandemic. 

"While others pursue their selfish interests with reckless behavior, the UK and its allies are getting on with the hard work of finding a vaccine and protecting global health," Raab said in a statement. 

The University of Oxford in the UK is developing was one of the world's leading coronavirus candidate vaccines, which is currently advancing rapidly in human trials. 

Read more: Germany proposes first-ever use of EU cyber sanctions over Russia hacking

'Russia has nothing to do' with hacking attempts

Russia firmly rejected the "groundless" accusations, with President Vladimir Putin's spokesman saying the claims were not backed by proper evidence.

"We don't have information about who may have hacked pharmaceutical companies and research centers in Britain," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, according to state news agency TASS. 

"We may say one thing: Russia has nothing to do with those attempts," he added.

In May, the US and the UK said that hacking networks were carrying out campaigns targeting international organizations responding to pandemic, but this is the first time a group has been publicly connected with Russia.

In June, the US accused China-backed hackers of targeting US-based COVID-19 research. 

wmr/rs (AP, Reuters, AFP, dpa)

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