Vladimir Putin must have known his spies were trying to steal groundbreaking British research into a coronavirus vaccine, a former chair of UK joint intelligence committee said today.
Lady Neville Jones told the BBC she is ‘almost certain’ that the Russian President will have been aware that his operatives launched cyber attacks on Oxford University and Imperial College London in an attempt to grab top secret data on the jab.
British scientists developing the vaccine have already said it is showing ‘positive signs’ of working with an 80 per cent chance of it being ready by September.
Lady Jones’ intervention came after Britain’s National Cyber Security Centre revealed the Russians had attacked Britain during lockdown and also tried to interfere in the 2019 General Election.
In a dramatic joint statement with counterparts in the United States and Canada, Britain’s cyber security agency accused the Kremlin of deploying hackers to try to steal Western research into combating the virus.
Targets have included Oxford University and Imperial College London, which are undertaking world-leading work to develop a vaccine. Security sources said the sophisticated espionage attacks were authorised at the ‘highest levels’ of the Russian regime, and may have been ordered by Putin himself.
Lady Neville Jones told the BBC she is ‘almost certain’ that the Russian President will have been aware that his operatives launched cyber attacks to steal Britain’s Covid-19 vaccine plans
Paul Chichester, director of operations at the National Cyber Security Centre, urged organisations involved in coronavirus research to shore up their defences.
He added: ‘We condemn these despicable attacks against those doing vital work to combat the coronavirus pandemic.
‘Working with our allies, the NCSC is committed to protecting our most critical assets and our top priority at this time is to protect the health sector.’
Oxford is leading the way on the vaccine and believe that there is an 80% chance of it being ready come September
WHAT ARE THE LEADING COVID-19 VACCINE CANDIDATES?
University of Oxford
Clinical teams at the Oxford University’s Jenner Institute and Oxford Vaccine Group began developing the ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 vaccine in January, now named AZD1222 since a manufacturing partnership with pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca was secured.
Human trials started on April 23 and they are now in the final phase.
Lead of the project Professor Sarah Gilbert told The Times she is ’80 per cent’ confident of its success.
Imperial College London
Professor Robin Shattock is leading a team working to produce a vaccine at Imperial College.
Fifteen volunteers have already been given the trial vaccines and testing is expected to ramp up to include as many as 200-300 new participants in the coming weeks.
A second trial, involving 6,000 people, will come later.
But Professor Shattock said the vaccine won’t be available until at least 2021 even if everything goes according to plan.
If the jab works, the team want to make it as cheap as possible so the entire British population could be vaccinated for the ‘really good value’ of just under £200million.
Massachusetts-based Moderna was the first US company to start human trials of its potential Covid-19 vaccine, known as mRNA-1273, on March 16.
The jab has proven to trigger an immune response in all 45 injected volunteers, according to a study published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine on July 14.
Moderna’s shot showed early promise in its phase 2 human tests last month. The company reported that it triggered antibody production on par with that seen in recovered coronavirus patients.
Chinese vaccine Ad5-nCoV, made by CanSino, was the very first shot to enter clinical trials earlier this year and is a leading candidate.
A trial of 108 healthy volunteers in China showed it safely triggered an immune response in participants.
Results published May 22 in The Lancet showed most of the people dosed with the vaccine had immune responses, although their levels of antibodies thought to neutralize the virus were relatively low. Researchers saw a stronger ramp-up of other immune compounds, called T-cells, that might also help fight the infection off.
Pfizer and BioNTech have been working on a number of potential Covid-19 vaccines under the ‘BNT162 program’.
It reported positive preliminary results from the ongoing Phase I/II clinical trial of one called BNT162b1 on July 1.
Data is available for the trial of BNT162b1 on 24 volunteers. The results showed that it was well tolerated and produced dose dependent immunity.
Dr Kathrin Jansen, Pfizer’s head of vaccine research and development, said the vaccine ‘is able to produce neutralizing antibody responses in humans at or above the levels observed’ in Covid-19 survivors.
Pfizer received fast track designation from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for two of their four potential Covid-19 vaccines this month.
Johnson & Johnson
The drug giant started work on the vaccine in January, two months before Covid-19 was labelled a global pandemic.
A vaccine trial spearheaded by Johnson and Johnson will start recruiting people in September, with clinical data available by the end of the year.
An ’emergency use’ batch of the vaccine is anticipated to be authorised as early as 2021, which would likely be prioritised for vulnerable people.
Downing Street also condemned Russia’s bid to steal the West’s vaccine research.
The Prime Minister’s official 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.’
Security sources declined to say whether the UK has deployed its offensive cyber-capability against the Russian hackers, but said the intelligence agencies had ‘a variety of ways’ of responding.
Sources said the Russian attacks began in February when global concern about the coronavirus began to escalate.
They were carried out by the infamous Cozy Bear unit, which has been named as the source of a string of offensive operations against the West.
The shadowy cell, also known as APT29 and The Dukes, has not previously been publicly linked to Russia’s state intelligence service.
But a joint assessment by the UK, US and Canada yesterday said it was ‘almost certainly part of the Russian intelligence services’.
It added: ‘Throughout 2020, APT29 has targeted various organisations involved in Covid-19 vaccine development in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom, highly likely with the intention of stealing information and intellectual property relating to the development and testing of Covid-19 vaccines.’
The allies warned that the hostile group ‘is likely to continue to target organisations involved in Covid-19 vaccine research and development, as they seek to answer additional intelligence questions relating to the pandemic’.
Research projects at Oxford and Imperial are among the most promising vaccine programmes in the world. This week it emerged that a phase one trial at Oxford involving 1,000 British volunteers appeared to stimulate an immune response – potentially a major breakthrough.
Yesterday’s joint report indicated that the Cozy Bear cell has had only limited success, saying it had gained only ‘initial footholds’ in vulnerable systems.
The NCSC has been working with British researchers and drug companies this year on shoring up their defences against attacks. Russia was the only hostile state named yesterday but sources have previously suggested that both China and Iran have made attempts to steal data.
The joint report found that the Russian hackers have deployed a range of techniques to try to infiltrate Western research establishments.
These include targeting well-known vulnerabilities in popular software, including ‘virtual private network’ or VPN applications.
Once inside a network, the hackers attempt to acquire the identities of legitimate users in order to maintain ‘persistent access’ to the system.
In some cases, the group then deploys a malware programme, codenamed ‘WellMess’ in order to download files or plant viruses.
Another method used by Cozy Bear is the simple technique of ‘phishing’ – sending emails that a recipient believes come from a trusted source.
Security sources said the hacks on vaccine programmes were largely designed to steal information rather than disrupt systems.
The report warned that the Cozy Bear cell has deployed ‘widespread scanning’ of vulnerabilities in order to gain access to a ‘broad’ range of Western establishments. In many cases the intelligence gained is ‘unlikely to be of immediate use’, said the report.
But the group has collected a store of ‘stolen credentials’ in order to access their systems ‘in the event that they become more relevant to their requirements’.
A leading Russian researcher said this week that Moscow planned to begin final-stage testing of a potential vaccine next month. Russia has reported the fourth highest number of coronavirus cases, after the United States, Brazil and India. It has recorded 11,614 fatalities, a toll far lower than in similarly affected countries, but has faced questions about the reliability of its data.
Russian hackers have previously targeted the Foreign Office, and the Ministry of Defence’s Porton Down laboratory in 2018 after the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia using novichok in Salisbury.