Hackers backed by the Russian state have been accused of trying to steal vital vaccine and treatment research on COVID-19 as the world grapples with a worsening pandemic.
Britain, the United States and Canada issued a joint statement outing the group APT29, also known as ‘Cozy Bear’ or ‘The Dukes’ which they said were most certainly working with Russian intelligence.
The group has been targeting academic and pharmaceutical institutions around the world, Britain’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) says.
“It is completely unacceptable that the Russian intelligence services are targeting those working to combat the coronavirus pandemic,” Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said in a statement.
“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,” Mr Raab said.
“The UK will continue to counter those conducting such cyberattacks, and work with our allies to hold perpetrators to account.”
Britain’s National Security Cyber Centre (NCSC) condemned “the despicable acts” against those doing vital work to combat the coronavirus pandemic.
More than than 13.5 million people have been infected worldwide and more than 580,000 have died, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.
Britain and the United States said in May that networks of hackers were targeting national and international organisations responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. But such attacks have not previously been explicitly connected to the Russian state.
The cyberattacks were “highly likely (carried out) with the intention of stealing information and intellectual property relating to the development and testing of COVID-19 vaccines,” the NCSC said.
It said APT29 hackers “almost certainly operate as part of Russian intelligence services”.
The attacks have used custom malware known as WellMess and WellMail to target the vaccine researchers amid a longer term “campaign of malicious activity”, it said.
The statement did not say whether Russian President Vladimir Putin knew about the vaccine research hacking but British officials believe such intelligence would be highly prized.
The Russian government-linked group Cozy Bear is widely suspected of hacking the Democratic Party ahead of the 2016 US election.
The TASS news agency cited Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying the Russian government had nothing to do any alleged hacker attacks on pharmaceutical companies and research institutes in Britain.
RIA cited Mr Peskov as saying the Kremlin rejected UK authorities’ allegations, which he said were not backed by proper evidence.
Pubs in spotlight over cluster fears
Restaurants, pubs and clubs are emerging as the frontline in efforts to prevent the re-emergence of the coronavirus around the world.
From India to Spain and Ireland, scenes of drunken patrons ignoring social distancing rules have raised fears of a second wave.
A popular spot for travellers, NSW Health confirmed the Crossroads Hotel’s “patient zero” was a Melbourne freight company employee who visited on July 3 for a work party.
The NSW government is desperately trying to get the outbreak under control while Victoria recorded its highest ever daily increase in cases on Thursday, with 317 infections and two deaths.
The Daily Telegraph reports NSW is planning a crackdown on pubs who will be given one week to improve safety or risk shutdown.
It comes as Europe’s northern summer holiday season kicks into high gear with scenes of drunken British and German tourists on Spain’s Mallorca island and reports of US visitors flouting quarantine measures in Ireland.
Germany’s foreign minister condemned the rowdy tourists for imperilling hard-won gains in efforts to contain the virus.
“We just recently managed to open the borders again in Europe. We cannot risk this by reckless behaviour,” Heiko Maas told Funke Media Group on Thursday.
“Otherwise, new measures will be inevitable.”
Mallorca’s partying tourists were in stark contrast to a solemn commemoration service for coronavirus victims in Madrid where relatives sat, physically distanced.
In France, which has been registering new outbreaks, Prime Minister Jean Castex said masks would be mandatory in closed public places as of next week.
In India, another record daily increase of nearly 32,700 cases pushed its total close to 1 million and led authorities to reimpose a three-day lockdown and night curfew in the popular beach state of Goa, two weeks after it was reopened to tourists.
Israel also registered a new daily record of confirmed coronavirus cases as a new country-wide lockdown appeared imminent.
Tokyo has recorded its highest daily number of new coronavirus infections since the start of the pandemic, with night clubs reportedly one of the main sources of the renewed spread, as well as clusters in theatres, offices and care facilities.
US tourists were causing consternation in Ireland amid fears that some were ignoring the government’s requirement that they self-isolate for 14 days after arrival.
Social distancing fears as NT borders open
As the Northern Territory prepares to open its borders on Friday, chief health officer Hugh Heggie says he is “calm and confident” but concerned Territorians were no longer taking physical distancing seriously.
All have to sign statutory declarations that they have not been in a hotspot and face heavy fines or even jail if caught lying.
Any arrivals from Victoria, Sydney and the Blue Mountains will be sent to supervised quarantine for 14 days at their own expense, costing $2500.
The NT has avoided any community transmission or deaths of COVID-19, with 32 cases since early March and only two currently active.
Dr Heggie said he was confident because of the testing and intensive care capability, and processes for potential lockdowns.
“We’ve got things in place: I’m confident. Are we all confident about our own behaviours?” Dr Heggie said.
“I have the last couple of days seen close encounters with people having conversations close in contained spaces. That’s where most of the transmission has occurred.”
Grim day in Victoria
Two men in their 80s died in Victoria, as the state recorded 317 new cases on Thursday – the biggest daily increase in Australia.
Victorian aged-care staff may be banned from working at multiple facilities to help curb the state’s second coronavirus outbreak, Australian Deputy Chief Medical Officer Michael Kidd says.
All category-three elective surgery has been paused in metropolitan Melbourne.
Elsewhere, South Australia confirmed its first new case in more than two weeks on Thursday, with a woman recently returned from overseas testing positive.
NSW recorded 10 new cases, including three linked to the Crossroads Hotel cluster.
At least one person became infectious within 24 hours, which is less than the usual incubation period of three to four days.
Australia’s total number of cases is now 10,810 with 2654 cases active and 8036 people recovered.
More than 22,000 fans watched Collingwood beat Geelong by 22 points in Perth on Thursday night in the largest mass gathering in Australia since the pandemic began.
Doctors described it as a “huge gamble”, but the state government hoped safety measures such as mobile phone tickets and card payments and leaving every second row empty would allow the event to emerge from any potential fallout.
On a day it emerged that the AFL is targeting the weekend of October 17 as its preferred date for a grand final, the NRL on Thursday gained concessions for players who live in south-west Sydney’s hotspots.
NRL chairman Peter V’landys also reached an agreement with Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk to avoid sides being forced into isolation after crossing the border.
“It’s a win for the players more than anyone else,” V’landys said.
Under other AFL changes, the 10 Victorian AFL clubs could be based in Queensland for a condensed fixture of 33 games in 19 days.