From China to Russia, race for Covid vaccine pits spy against spy

WASHINGTON: Chinese intelligence hackers were intent on stealing coronavirus vaccine data, so they looked for what they believed would be an easy target. Instead of simply going after pharma companies, they conducted digital reconnaissance on the University of North Carolina and other schools doing cutting-edge research.
They were not the only spies at work. Russia’s premier intelligence service, the SVR, targeted vaccine research networks in the US, Canada and Britain, espionage efforts that were first detected by a British spy agency monitoring international fiber optic cables. Iran, too, has drastically stepped up its attempts to steal information about vaccine research, and the US has increased its own efforts to track the espionage of its adversaries and shore up its defenses. In short, every major spy service around the globe is trying to find out what everyone else is up to.
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The coronavirus pandemic has prompted one of the fastest peacetime mission shifts in recent times for the world’s intelligence agencies, according to interviews with current and former intelligence officials and others tracking the espionage efforts. Nearly all of the US’ adversaries intensified their attempts to steal American research while Washington, in turn, has moved to protect the universities and corporations. Nato intelligence, normally concerned with the movement of Russian tanks and terrorist cells, has expanded to scrutinise Kremlin efforts to steal vaccine research as well, according to a Western official .
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The contest is reminiscent of the space race, where the Soviet Union and America relied on their spy services to catch up when the other looked likely to achieve a milestone. But the timeline to help secure data on virus treatments is sharply compressed.
China’s push is complex. Its operatives have also surreptitiously used information from the WHO to guide its vaccine hacking attempts, both in the US and Europe, according to a current and a former official familiar with the intelligence. It was not clear how exactly China was using its influential position in the WHO to gather information about vaccine work around the globe. The organisation does collect data about vaccines under development, and while much of it is eventually made public, Chinese hackers could have benefited by getting early information, according to an ex-intel official.
American intelligence officials learned about China’s efforts in early February as the virus was gaining a foothold in the US, according to current and former American officials. The CIA and other agencies closely watch China’s moves inside international agencies, including the WHO. The intelligence conclusion helped push the White House toward the tough line it adopted in May on the WHO, according to the former intelligence official.
Besides the University of North Carolina, Chinese hackers have also targeted other universities around the country and some may have had their networks breached, US officials said. The US also ordered China on July 22 to close its consulate in Houston in part because Chinese operatives had used it as an outpost to try to make inroads with medical experts in the city, according to the FBI. So far, officials believe that foreign spies have taken little information from the American firms they targeted: Gilead Sciences, Novavax and Moderna.
The British electronic surveillance agency GCHQ too was learning about the Russian effort, announced in July, on gathering intelligence about research by Oxford University and its pharmaceutical partner, AstraZeneca. The Russians caught trying to get vaccine information were part of the group known as Cozy Bear, a collection of hackers affiliated with the SVR Cozy Bear was one of the hacking groups that in 2016 broke into Democratic computer servers.
No corporation or university has announced any data thefts resulting from the publicly identified hacking efforts. But some of the hacking attempts succeeded in at least penetrating defences to get inside computer networks, according to one US official.“It is really a race against time for good guys to find the vulnerabilities and get them patched,” said Bryan S Ware, the assistant director of cybersecurity for the Homeland Security Department’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. “The race is tighter than ever.”

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