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U.S., Canada, Britain Say Russian Hackers Are After COVID-19 Vaccine Data


More than 75,000 cases of COVID-19 were reported in the U.S. yesterday, another record. Over the past month, we've said this a lot. We keep hitting new case records. The U.S. and other countries are competing to develop a vaccine, rushing to do so. Intelligence agencies from the U.S., U.K. and Canada now say Russia is trying to cheat. Hackers from a group called Cozy Bear are trying to steal company secrets. This is the same group that broke into Democratic Party servers in 2016 and created chaos in the election. Here with me now to explain are NPR's national security correspondent Greg Myre and science correspondent Joe Palca. Good morning, guys.



KING: Greg, let me start with you. How did Cozy Bear's hack work?

MYRE: Well, according to the National Security Agency, the Russians used spear phishing. That involves sending out a big batch of fraudulent emails, trying to get employees to click on them and then steal their passwords. The Russians were apparently also trying to insert malware. So these are pretty common methods. But they have been successful for Russia in the past.

KING: And do we know whether it worked this time? Did they get anything - any valuable information on vaccines?

MYRE: We don't know at this point. The Western intelligence agencies clearly wanted to send a strong signal by putting out this joint warning and noting that they're coordinating their efforts. But they didn't name any organizations that were targeted. They didn't say whether any valuable information was lost. And, of course, because there is no vaccine yet there is no magic formula that could be stolen. But having said that, it's not hard to figure out who the likely targets were. The companies have been advertising their work on a potential vaccine. They've been very public about it, announcing updates and preliminary results with their research.

KING: Russia, given that it is Russia - it's a big country with a long history of different types of programs - has to be working on its own vaccine development, right?

MYRE: Oh, yes, absolutely. And the Russian government has dedicated some real resources to this program. And in fact, just this week, they announced that they had successfully completed the first human trial - very small scale. But still, they announced that it was - appeared to be successful. And they're looking at starting a larger trial at home in the coming months, when their goal is very clearly to create their own vaccine. Now, we should note Russia has been very hard-hit. President Vladimir Putin seemed pretty casual at the beginning of the pandemic. But Russia now has hit 750,000 cases. That's the fourth-largest total worldwide. And because of the low oil prices, the economy there has really been hit very hard.

KING: You can see why there's so much competition for a vaccine. Have other countries attempted to do things like this - to hack in and steal info?

MYRE: Well, U.S. intelligence said back in May that China had been making attempts. And that certainly wasn't surprising. China has a long track record of trying to steal intellectual property in the U.S. And that includes material from pharmaceutical companies. And China's also working very hard to rewrite the narrative about this virus, since it broke out in that country. Their a number of cases do seem to be pretty much under control. And their economy does seem to be showing signs of recovery. Still, a vaccine would be a really big boost for China.

KING: All right, Greg. Hang out for just a second. Joe Palca, let me turn to you. This sounds reminiscent of the space race during the Cold War. Is that how Russia sees this?

PALCA: Well, I actually don't really know how Russia sees it. But I think it's an apt analogy. Some people are saying it's a kind of race. And obviously, being able to guarantee to people in your country that it's safe to return to work and go about life is going to be a huge economic burst. And the boost in the first company to get - the first country to get there is going to be ahead of the game globally.

But for public health officials, it's a different kind of race. I mean, they see this as - pandemic as a global health threat. And until everybody around the world is safe, from the vaccine, presumably, or herd immunity or some other thing, the pandemic is still going to affect everyone. And so it is also important to remember that there has been cooperation. I mean, Greg mentioned the Chinese hacking. But at the same time, the Chinese published the genetic sequence of the virus in early January, which allowed all the countries around the world to get a head start on building vaccines, therapies, diagnostics, what have you.

KING: Yeah, no, that's an interesting point. You and Greg have been reporting down different paths because you cover very different beats. So let me ask you - do you have any information that Russia may have gotten something from this hack that would help them build a vaccine?

PALCA: Yeah. I mean, I can't say - you know, nobody - even if the companies knew they would - had been hacked, they probably wouldn't want to tell me about it or anybody else, for that matter. But the hacking is a sort of an interesting problem in science. I mean, I tried to come up with an analogy. It's not as if there's, like, a cookbook. So the sports analogy I came up with - and forgive me, Tom Goldman, if you're listening...

KING: (Laughter).

PALCA: ...But it's a little bit like stealing signs in a baseball game. I mean, if you know a fastball or curve ball is going to be coming as the next pitch, that's going to help you. But look. You still have to hit a ball that's coming at you at 100 miles an hour. That's not simple. So you think about, OK, I have some information about how this vaccine is being made, but there's a ton of science that goes into understanding that information and making use of it. And even if you can do all that you still have to be able to manufacture it and that's going to take a while?

KING: Why does it take a while?

PALCA: Well, making a vaccine isn't like making, you know, a widget. I mean, you don't just change out the mold. And suddenly, instead of making a strawberry-sized containers, you're making garbage-can-sized containers. I mean, it's very much more complicated than that. And the other thing is it takes a while to build that capacity. So what's happening in this country is the government is actually spending billions - literally billions of dollars to build manufacturing for vaccines that may not work. And so in a sense, that's the competition - is, you know, how much do you want to spend to make something work that you may never be able to bring to market?

KING: In the last couple seconds - I know it's a big question, but where does vaccine development stand right now?

PALCA: Well, there are several vaccines in human trials. Several of them are going to be going into what they call efficacy trials to see if they work. And so we're getting there. It's getting closer. But it's still a ways off.

KING: NPR science correspondent Joe Palca and NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre. Thanks, you guys.

PALCA: My pleasure.

MYRE: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.