Researchers Discovered Efforts to Steal Vaccine Data


03 December 2020

Security researchers at the tech company IBM say they have found a cyber effort to collect information on the worldwide distribution of COVID-19 vaccine.

The researchers said the effort began in September but that they are not sure who is leading it. They suspect a "nation-state," the researchers wrote in a report issued Thursday.

The report says the targets of the hacking are "providers of material support to meet transportation needs within the COVID-19 cold chain." These include organizations in Europe, South Korea and Taiwan that make and supply vaccine refrigerators and dry ice required for the cold chain.

The cold chain is the technology and process used to store and transport vaccines in temperature-controlled environments. Two promising COVID-19 vaccines, one from Pfizer-BioNTech and another from Moderna, require shipping and storage in very low temperature.

In this image released on Tuesday, Nov. 11, 2020, the first Mobile Hybrid Container Solution made by MECOTEC with an active deep cooling technology for transport, storage and distribution of COVID-19-Vaccines down to - 80<I>&#</i>176;C. (MECOTEC/news aktuell via AP)
In this image released on Tuesday, Nov. 11, 2020, the first Mobile Hybrid Container Solution made by MECOTEC with an active deep cooling technology for transport, storage and distribution of COVID-19-Vaccines down to - 80&#176;C. (MECOTEC/news aktuell via AP)

Nick Rossmann leads IBM intelligence gathering team. He said whoever is behind the operation could be trying to learn about the cold chain in order to copy it. Or, he added, they might want to damage the international vaccine effort.

IBM said people and groups with ties to COVAX, an international effort to provide COVID-19 vaccines to developing countries, received emails appearing to come from a leader of Haier Biomedical. The Chinese company is one of the world's cold-chain suppliers working with the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF and other U.N. agencies. The emails contained attachments that forced recipients to enter their personal security information in order to open the files.

Last month, Microsoft said it found several attempts from "three nation-state actors" from Russia and North Korea to steal vaccine information. "The targets include leading pharmaceutical companies and vaccine researchers in Canada, France, India, South Korea and the United States," that report read.

In July, the U.S., Britain and Canada also accused Chinese and Russian hackers of trying to steal Western research into coronavirus vaccines and treatments.

Tough times ahead

As the weather gets colder, the U.S. has experienced record high numbers of COVID-19 cases. On Thursday, the country reported more than 3,100 deaths, 100,000 hospitalized and 200,000 new daily infections.

Dr. Robert Redfield, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Wednesday, "The reality is December and January and February are going to be rough times. I actually believe they are going to be the most difficult time in the public health history of this nation."

Around the world, Johns Hopkins University reported nearly 65 million people infected with coronavirus including about 1.5 million deaths.

This week, Britain became the first nation to approve emergency use of COVID-19 vaccine from Pfizer-BioNTech. The U.S. and the European Union are expected to approve that vaccine and another one from Moderna for emergency use within weeks.

I'm Caty Weaver.

Hai Do wrote this story for Learning English with additional reporting from the Associated Press and Reuters. Caty Weaver was the editor.

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Words in This Story

distribution - n. the act of delivering something to people

rough - adj. likely to cause harm or injury