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Intelligence Agencies Warn Russian Hackers Are Targeting Coronavirus Vaccine Research

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

We still don't know which country or which company will be the first to develop a vaccine for the coronavirus. We do know that such a vaccine will be extremely valuable. And today U.S., British and Canadian intelligence agencies all said that Russian hackers are trying to steal information from Western health care organizations working on a vaccine. For more on this potential threat, we're joined now by NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre.

Hey, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: Hi. So what do we know about these attempted Russian hacks?

MYRE: Well, we heard from the National Security Agency, along with their British and Canadian counterparts. They issued this coordinated statement - or statements, plural. Now, they say they're seeing these persistent attempts by Russian hackers to break into a range of organizations working on a potential vaccine. So it is a bit unusual for them all to put out a statement. They clearly wanted to amplify their message by putting out this information simultaneously and noting the joint efforts that are underway to detect and mitigate the threat.

Western intelligence agencies say they're seeing these spear-phishing emails and attempts to insert malware. And as they examine these digital fingerprints, they believe these hackers are part of a Russian group that's formally known as APT29 or informally known as Cozy Bear.

CHANG: Cozy Bear - right. OK, Cozy Bear may sound familiar to some of our listeners. Remind us why we've heard of them before.

MYRE: Well, they're linked to Russian intelligence, and they've been blamed for hacking into Democratic Party emails in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. They're part of one of several Russian intelligence agencies, and they're believed to be part of the Russian equivalent of the CIA.

Now, in the U.S., the National Security Agency rarely comments on anything. But Anne Neuberger, who's NSA cybersecurity director, issued a statement saying that, quote, "APT29 has a long history of targeting governmental, diplomatic, think tank, health care and energy organizations." Russia pretty shortly afterward denied the accusation, saying it had nothing to do with this, according to a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

CHANG: OK. So do we know who was targeted by these hacks, I mean, and if any valuable information was stolen?

MYRE: No, we don't at this point. The intelligence agencies didn't name any organization that's been targeted. The statements didn't say whether any of these alleged Russian efforts were successful or if they caused any real harm. And, of course, we should remember there is no vaccine yet, so there is no magic formula to steal right now.

CHANG: Right.

MYRE: But that said, it's not too hard to figure out who the likely targets are. The U.S. government has provided money to some companies to work on a vaccine. The companies themselves have provided updates on their research and some preliminary results. And it appears that targets do go beyond just pharmaceutical companies. It can all be - also be university research labs or government health agencies.

CHANG: I mean, there's clearly a fierce global competition to develop a vaccine. What might be the motives behind a hacking attempt like this, you think?

MYRE: Well, really, several. First of all, this is what Russian intelligence agencies do. But this vaccine would be - will be extremely valuable financially. It'll be great prestige for the country that develops it first. And some are predicting that we're seeing, really, the first stages of vaccine nationalism. We started hearing about this a couple months ago in early May when the U.S. and others started sounding the alarm about China. Perhaps most importantly at all - of all, the country that develops a vaccine can begin vaccinating its own people first. They...

CHANG: Right.

MYRE: ...Won't have to wait in a long line for what could be a very long process.

CHANG: That is NPR's Greg Myre.

Thank you, Greg.

MYRE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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