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Russians accused of bids to hack Covid-19 research in the UK, US and Canada

Vaccine scientists alerted to threat as Kremlin denies accusations


Accusation: Britain’s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab. Photo: Hannnah McKay/Reuters

Accusation: Britain’s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab. Photo: Hannnah McKay/Reuters

Accusation: Britain’s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab. Photo: Hannnah McKay/Reuters

Britain, the United States and Canada have accused Russian hackers of trying to steal information from researchers seeking a coronavirus vaccine, warning scientists and pharmaceutical companies to be alert for suspicious activity.

Intelligence agencies in the three nations alleged the hacking group APT29 - also known as Cozy Bear and said to be part of the Russian intelligence services - is attacking academic and pharmaceutical research institutions involved in Covid-19 vaccine development.

"It is completely unacceptable that the Russian Intelligence Services are targeting those working to combat the coronavirus pandemic,'' British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said in a statement, accusing Moscow of pursuing "selfish interests with reckless behaviour".

Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, rejected the British accusations, saying: "We don't have information about who may have hacked pharmaceutical companies and research centres in Britain.

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

The persistent and ongoing attacks are seen by intelligence officials as an effort to steal intellectual property rather than disrupt research. The campaign of "malicious activity'' is ongoing and includes attacks "predominantly against government, diplomatic, think tank, health care and energy targets'', Britain's National Cyber Security Centre said.

It said its assessment was shared by the US Department of Homeland Security, the Cybersecurity Infrastructure Security Agency and the National Security Agency, and by the Canadian Communication Security Establishment.

The co-ordinated move seemed designed to add weight to the announcement, hopefully prompting the targets of the hackers to take protective action.

It was unclear whether any information actually was stolen, but the UK says individuals' confidential information is not believed to have been compromised.

The UK statement did not say whether Mr Putin knew about the vaccine research hacking, but British officials believe such intelligence would be highly prized.

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Relations been Russia and the UK have plummeted since former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned with a Soviet-made nerve agent in Salisbury in 2018 and later recovered.

Britain blamed Moscow for the attack, which triggered a round of retaliatory diplomatic expulsions between Russia and Western countries.

In a separate report yesterday, Britain accused "Russian actors" of trying to interfere in December's general election by circulating leaked or stolen documents online. Unlike in the vaccine report, Britain did not allege that the Russian state was involved in the political meddling.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is being accused by opponents of suppressing a report into Russian interference in British politics that was completed last year by the committee that oversees intelligence services. It was not cleared for publication before the election and the six-month delay in appointing new members to the Intelligence and Security Committee led to allegations that Mr Johnson's government was deliberately stalling.

The Labour Party has accused the government of failing to publish the report because it would lead to other questions about links between Russia and the Brexit campaign in Britain's 2016 European Union membership referendum, which Mr Johnson helped to lead.

The intelligence committee met for the first time this week and said it would publish the Russia report before Parliament begins its summer break on July 22.

Some critics accused the government of releasing its dossiers of allegations about Russia as a diversionary tactic.

Mr Johnson's spokesman, James Slack, said that was "nonsense".

The report of Russia trying to hack Covid-19 vaccine research comes two years to the day since Mr Trump stood alongside Mr Putin in Helsinki and appeared to side with Moscow instead of US intelligence agencies about the 2016 election interference.

A 16-page advisory prepared by Western agencies accuses Cozy Bear of using custom malicious software to target a number of organisations globally. The malware, called WellMess and WellMail, has not previously been associated with the hacking group, the advisory said.

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