Russian hackers targeting coronavirus vaccine researchers, UK agency warns

  • Video report by ITV News Security Editor Rohit Kachroo

Hackers linked to the Russian intelligence agencies are targeting British scientists seeking to develop a coronavirus vaccine, the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) has warned.

In a joint statement with the US National Security Agency and the Canadian Communication Security Establishment, the NCSC said the attacks were part of a global campaign by the group known as APT29 to steal the secrets of vaccine research.

The attacks have been happening globally since February or March but are not believed to have obtained the personal information of those taking part in vaccine trials, ITV News Political Editor Paul Brand has reported.

NCSC director of operations Paul Chichester said: "We condemn these despicable attacks against those doing vital work to combat the coronavirus pandemic."

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said: "It is completely unacceptable that the Russian Intelligence Services are targeting those working to combat the coronavirus pandemic. "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."

ITV News Security Editor says the UK is looking at an "offensive cyber force" which could have hundreds of specialists involved.

But Britain can only actually move when doing so in tandem with other states.

  • Mr Raab told ITV News the attacks were "pretty appalling" and "need calling out":

Mr Chichester said the NCSC would continue to work with its "allies" to protect "our most critical assets," adding that the current "top priority [...] is to protect the health sector."

Imperial College London began coronavirus vaccine trials on 300 people in June, to see whether their jab produces an effective immune response against Covid-19.

A spokesperson for the university said: "We take appropriate security measures and have benefited from government advice, including from the National Cyber Security Centre, to provide extra protection around our COVID-19 vaccine work."

Speaking to ITV News' Paul Brand, Imperial College Professor Danny Altmann revealed he did not believe the attackers will have obtained anything valuable.

Professor Altmann said data sets are kept secure and those deemed most useful are shared globally anyway.