Hackers backed by the Russian state are targeting pharmaceutical companies and academic institutions in the UK, US and Canada which are working on developing a Covid-19 vaccine, British intelligence officials have warned.

The UK’s National Cyber Security Centre, working with Canada’s Communications Security Establishment, has attributed the attacks to hacking group APT29, also known as “Cozy Bear”, which it alleged was “almost certainly” working for Russian intelligence services. The findings have been endorsed by the US National Security Agency.

APT29 has been linked to the hacking and theft of emails from the Democratic National Committee ahead of the 2016 US election.

Dominic Raab, UK foreign secretary, said it was “completely unacceptable that the Russian intelligence services are targeting those working to combat the coronavirus pandemic”.

“While others pursue their selfish interests with reckless behaviour, the UK and its allies are getting on with the hard work of finding a vaccine and protecting global health,” he said. “The UK will continue to counter those conducting such cyber attacks, and work with our allies to hold perpetrators to account.”

Intelligence officials said the group used a variety of tools and techniques. However, they would not confirm whether any attempts to steal intellectual property from vaccine researchers had been successful.

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