Future Tense

Russian Hackers Reportedly Tried to Steal Coronavirus Vaccine Research From the U.S., U.K., and Canada

A hand holds a syringe over a white table.
An experimental coronavirus vaccine from a trial in Australia. David Mariuz/AAP via Reuters

As if the coronavirus pandemic response wasn’t chaotic enough, now Russian hackers are involved. On Thursday, AmericanBritish, and Canadian officials announced that a group of hackers targeted academic and health care organizations that are working to develop coronavirus vaccines. Per a report from the U.K.’s National Cyber Security Centre, these hackers “almost certainly operate as part of Russian intelligence services.”

The Russian government denies its involvement in the hack—a throwback to 2016, when the Kremlin shrugged off accusations of hacking the Democratic National Committee.

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The suspected hacker group is APT29, otherwise known as Cozy Bear. As far as Russian-affiliated hacker groups are concerned, Cozy Bear is top brass. Along with the group Fancy Bear, it was linked to the 2016 DNC hacking. Now, by way of malware and spear-phishing, its hackers are attempting to access COVID-19 vaccine research and information on medical supply chains.

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The cybersecurity director of the National Security Agency, Anne Neuberger, warned, “APT29 has a long history of targeting governmental, diplomatic, think-tank, health care, and energy organizations for intelligence gain so we encourage everyone to take this threat seriously.”

But as of yet, the U.S. government hasn’t stated whether the hack has damaged vaccine research efforts. Associate professor Mike Chapple, who teaches cybersecurity at the University of Notre Dame, told the New York Times, “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.”

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This isn’t the first time something like this has happened. Back in May, the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI accused Chinese hackers and spies of stealing American vaccine research. Iranian hackers likewise set their sights on COVID-19 treatments, and South Korea, Vietnam, and several other countries deployed state-run hackers to gather information on the coronavirus, the New York Times reported.

coronavirus vaccine is (fingers crossed) on the horizon, though global public health officials have expressed concern that the U.S. could corner the market, leaving out the rest of the world. Earlier this month, the U.S. government made a $1.6 billion deal with Novavax to advance its work on a COVID-19 vaccine. If clinical trials of the vaccine are successful, Novavax will produce 100 million doses by the beginning of 2021. And just this week, a potential vaccine from the biotech company Moderna triggered immune responses in every participant who received it in the early trial stages. The last trial stage of Moderna’s vaccine will begin later this month. After that, it’ll be up to regulators to decide whether the vaccine is ready to hit the market. In a Tuesday press release, Moderna claimed it’s “on track to be able to deliver approximately 500 million doses per year, and possibly up to 1 billion doses per year, beginning in 2021.” But a celebration isn’t in order just yet. Experts caution that a lot of work needs to be done before any vaccine becomes widely available. They also fear that a premature vaccine release could yield devastating consequences.

And as it happens, Russia just ended its first human trial of an experimental coronavirus vaccine. It hopes to manufacture 30 million doses domestically this year, although Russia may have the potential to produce an addition 170 million for people abroad, Reuters reports.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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