Russia Accused of Stealing
Western Coronavirus Research
July 16, 2020
U.S., British and Canadian officials accused the Kremlin Thursday of
being behind a massive and ongoing cyber hack aimed at stealing from
Western pharmaceutical companies and academic institutions doing
research into coronavirus vaccines and treatment therapies.
In a joint statement, the governments of all three countries said the
hacking operation started in February and has been unrelenting since.
Britain’s National Cybersecurity Center, part of the country’s
eavesdropping agency, GCHQ, issued the statement, which was coordinated
with counterparts in the U.S. and Canada. Officials identified the
Russian hacking group APT29, also nicknamed Cozy Bear, as being behind
“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 and apply the
mitigations issued in the advisory,” Anne Neuberger, cybersecurity
director at the U.S.’s National Security Agency, said in a statement.
Paul Chichester, the National Cybersecurity Center’s director of
operations, said, “We condemn these despicable attacks against those
doing vital work to combat the coronavirus pandemic.”
Chichester said the Cozy Bear group “almost certainly operates as part
of Russian intelligence services.”
All three Western allies are working to try to protect
coronavirus-related research and are issuing new cybersecurity advice to
pharmaceutical firms, universities and other research institutes.
“We would urge organizations to familiarize themselves with the advice
we have published to help defend their networks,” Chichester added.
The three Western allies first warned in May that state-backed cyber
spies were trying to steal coronavirus data, but they did not at that
time identify who was behind the assault. Officials briefed reporters
off the record that China, Russia and Iran were involved.
Cozy Bear, along with a cyber hacking group called Fancy Bear, have been
accused by U.S. officials and private cybersecurity companies of hacking
the U.S. Democratic Party in 2016 in the run-up to the presidential
The accusation about the Kremlin-sponsored cyberattacks came just
minutes after Britain’s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told lawmakers in
the House of Commons that Russia had sought to meddle in last year’s
British general election.
Raab said it was “almost certain” that Russia attempted to influence the
outcome of the election, after documents detailing Anglo-American free
trade talks were “illicitly acquired.”
The trade documents were placed online and were noticed by Britain’s
main opposition Labor Party and used in the election campaign to suggest
the Conservatives would sign a post-Brexit trade deal with the U.S. that
would be more favorable for U.S. businesses.
“On the basis of extensive analysis, the government has concluded that
it is almost certain that Russian actors sought to interfere in the 2019
general election through the online amplification of illicitly acquired
and leaked government documents,” Raab said.
He added, “Sensitive government documents relating to the U.K.-U.S. free
trade agreement were illicitly acquired before the 2019 general election
and disseminated online via the social media platform Reddit. When these
gained no traction, further attempts were made to promote the illicitly
acquired material online in the run-up to the general election.”
Raab said the British government “reserves the right to respond with
appropriate measures in the future” — a sign that London is considering
imposing additional sanctions on Russia, adding to those already
introduced for Russia's annexation in 2014 of Ukraine’s Crimea region
and for a nerve agent attack in England targeting a Russian defector.
Russia's Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said Raab’s
allegations about election meddling were vague.
“The statement is so foggy and contradictory that it's practically
impossible to understand,” she told reporters in Moscow.
Russian officials deny any involvement by the Russian state in
coronavirus cyber hacking, saying Moscow’s own vaccine plans are far
advanced and claiming Russia could be the first country to roll out mass
Raab’s accusations Thursday come ahead of the scheduled publication next
week of a House of Commons report on alleged Russian interference in the
general workings of British democracy. That report was completed in May
2018 but was delayed by the government, despite pressure from opposition
parties that it be released ahead of last year’s general election, in
which Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party won in a
U.S. authorities recently accused Chinese spies of trying to steal
vaccine information. FBI Director Chris Wray last week said, “At this
very moment, China is working to compromise American health care
organizations, pharmaceutical companies, and academic institutions
conducting essential COVID-19 research.”
British officials say that the ongoing and highly targeted hacking
operation by Cozy Bear has focused on facilities known to be working on
coronavirus vaccines and treatments to overcome COVID-19, the disease
caused by the coronavirus. British-based researchers at the University
of Oxford and Imperial College London are believed to be among those
Britain’s spy chiefs say the Russian hackers have been using several
techniques to try to gain access to information, including
spear-phishing and custom malware.
official Downing Street spokesman said, “The attacks which are taking
place against scientists and others doing vital work to combat
coronavirus are despicable. Working with our allies, we will call out
those who seek to do us harm in cyberspace and hold them to account.”
Russian officials announced Thursday that Phase 2 trials of a
Russian-made coronavirus vaccine will end on Aug. 3, to be followed
immediately by a third phase.
“The third phase will not only take place in Russia, but also in a
number of other countries," Kirill Dmitriev, head of the Russian Direct
Investment Fund, told reporters during an online press conference.
“We expect to receive regulatory approval to start using the Russian
vaccine in August-September,” he added.
The vaccine was developed by Moscow's Gamalei Institute of Epidemiology,
working with the country’s Ministry of Defense.