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Russia’s vaccine hack shows dark side of world

Bloomberg July 17 | Updated on July 17, 2020 Published on July 17, 2020

Attacks on health-care firms have intensified, with cybercrime rising by 300 per cent since May compared to last year   -  Arkadiusz Warguła

Access to vaccines has escalated to a new level

A half year into a pandemic that’s killed almost 600,000 people, the international race for protection from the virus escalated to a treacherous new level with allegations that vaccine development has become a target of Russian cyber-attacks.

Vaccine nationalism is already a concern as countries jockey to secure doses of future shots, desperate for a way out of a global crisis that’s slammed their economies.

Science and money have been the main drivers so far, with the US spending billions on deals for experimental shots and other countries trying to keep up. Government reports that Russian intelligence hacked international research centres developing inoculations against Covid-19, add a plot line reminiscent of Cold War spy thrillers.

The stakes are higher than ever, David Nides, a health-care cyber specialist at KPMG in Chicago, said in an interview.

There’s a race for a vaccine or a treatment, and the prize is huge for whoever comes out on top.

Concerns over global access to vaccines have escalated, with Brazil surpassing two million coronavirus infections and India exceeding one million cases. In May, Sanofi Chief Executive Officer Paul Hudson said Americans would likely get the French company’s Covid-19 vaccine before the rest of the world if it proved successful, because the US was first in line to fund its research. Later, Sanofi said its vaccine would be available to everyone.

Vaccine deals

That prompted other countries and groups like the European Union to try to catch up — mostly by pooling funds for deals of their own or by lobbying for equitable access. There are more than 160 vaccine projects under way at companies and research organisations around the world. China’s President Xi Jinping has pledged to turn any vaccine developed by the country into a global public good — even as the country’s CanSino Biologics Inc. has already administered a shot to some Chinese soldiers.

Health-care companies and organisations have long been considered prime targets for cyber attacks, in part because of relatively lax security, a large number of access points and devices that can be penetrated.

Ransomware attack

The value of the information they contain is also coveted. US-based Merck & Co was hit by a ransomware attack in 2017 that affected manufacturing, formulation and packaging.

Attacks on health-care and life-sciences organisations have intensified during the pandemic, with cybercrime in the sector increasing about 300 per cent since May compared with the same period a year earlier, Nides estimated. Hackers working for the Chinese government are trying to steal research on coronavirus vaccines and treatments from US organisations, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security warned in May.

Russia hasn’t invested in the scientific infrastructure that would allow it to develop vaccines as quickly as the US, UK, China and other nations, according to Michael Ebert, executive vice-president of advisory services at Focal Point Data Risk, a Tampa, Florida-based cybersecurity firm.

The operation, which appeared to quietly steal information rather than locking it up for ransom, shows how desperate Russia is for guidance on how to make vaccines, as well as access, he said.

I don’t think anyone cares about the IP behind the vaccine, Ebert said. They see this as a global issue.

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Published on July 17, 2020
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