Coronavirus Vaccine: Russian Hackers Targeting $8 Billion of Western Investment

Russian hackers gained global notoriety for hacking the emails of Democratic Party officials in the run up to the 2016 elections and releasing sensitive information aimed at helping swing the elections in favour of then-candidate, Donald Trump. Now, they are back in the news as intelligence agencies in the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States of America say they have detected attempts by hacker groups controlled by the Kremlin to steal advanced research work being conducted to develop a vaccine for the new coronavirus by their universities and pharmaceutical firms.

The UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (CSC), the Canadian Communication Security Establishment (CSE), the United States Department for Homeland Security (DHS), Cyber-security Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) and the US National Security Agency (NSA) all agree that the Russian hackers are attacking the computers holding records of sensitive research using two malwares: WellMess and WellMail. The malwares exploit software flaws to get access to vulnerable computer systems and upload and download files from infected computers. The malwares also trick scientists into compromising their login details through spear-phishing. The intelligence agencies however maintain that the Russian hackers have not been able to gain access to any significant information.

A spokesman for the Russian President Vladimir Putin, Dmitry Peskov, has come out to say that Russia has no links with any group of hackers trying to steal coronavirus vaccine research. Western intelligence agencies however insist that it is the same group of hackers that stole information from the US Democratic National Committee (DNC) computers during the US Presidential election in 2016.

What is Russia after?

Russia’s pharmaceutical industry is worth around $25 billion (2018); Russia thus has the capacity to deliver legally-obtained vaccine. But the purported Kremlin attempt to steal research might have been motivated by the international prestige and domestic propaganda value that Russian discovery, even if through theft, would deliver. Russia remains a superpower in the physical sciences but the country’s scientific prowess has seriously deteriorated in the last three decades, first as a result of economic decline and more recently as a result of state intervention. In January 2020, the Russian Academy of Sciences announced that the Commission for Countering the Falsification of Scientific Research, which it set up to improve standards, recommended that 869 scientific papers be withdrawn mainly for plagiarism and falsified data. Outright purchase of doctoral dissertations is not uncommon in Russia. This makes Russia unable to compete with western research institutions.

There is a wealth of ongoing well-funded research into the development of a vaccine for the new coronavirus in the West that Russia could be targeting.

One of them is Novavax’s research, funded by a $1.6 billion grant from the American government to cover testing, commercialization and manufacturing of a coronavirus vaccine. Some other funded research projects include the $456 million investment in Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine candidate in March 2020 and the $486 million award to Moderna in April 2020.

In May 2020, the White House released funding of $1.2 billion for AstraZeneca’s vaccine candidate being developed with Oxford University. The U.S. government also awarded Emergent Biosolutions $628 million to develop manufacturing capacity for a potential coronavirus vaccine besides medication to treat Covid-19.

There is an additional $388 million in funding for Novavax to develop a vaccine from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) following a $4 million investment in March 2020. In June, the U.S. Department of Defense awarded the company $60 million to support manufacturing of 10 million doses of its vaccine in 2020.

The UK has devoted £84 million to help top researchers in their quest to develop a coronavirus vaccine. This includes £65.5 million for the vaccine being developed at the University of Oxford and £18.5 million for Imperial College London

In France, Sanofi SA is investing more than €600 million ($675 million) in vaccine research and production in France in response to President Emmanuel Macron’s demand that his country have access to any vaccine the French pharmaceutical giant develops against the coronavirus.

The Government of Canada has provided a total investment of $26.8M for several research institutions. The government aims to spend $1.1 billion to help develop and manufacture a vaccine

No Russian research institution or research firm is doing any internationally recognized work to develop a vaccine.

Russia’s 26 Candidate Vaccines

Russia has announced 26 candidate vaccines. One of the candidates, the one being developed by Gamaleya National Research Centre for Epidemiology and Microbiology, has successfully passed the first phase of trials. Another candidate vaccine, Vector is in the process of obtaining permission to proceed to clinical trials. But none of these potential coronavirus vaccines from Russia is known outside Russia; they lack the high profile and credibility of their western rivals.

The Major Firms Developing Vaccines

Johnson & Johnson which is a US-based pharmaceutical company has partnered with Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) and is currently in its first phase.

Pfizer is a US/Germany pharmaceutical company in collaboration with BionTech to develop a vaccine and currently in its first phase

Moderna in collaboration with National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID), Lonza Ltd received funding from CEPI in January to develop an mRNA vaccine against COVID-19. On Feb. 24, it said it had shipped the first batch of mRNA-1273 to the NIAID for a Phase 1 clinical trial in the U.S. It is currently in its second phase of clinical trial.

Novavax Inc, a preclinical biotechnology company, announced Feb. 26 that it had several vaccine candidates in preclinical animal studies. By April 8, the company said it had identified a COVID-19 vaccine candidate, and it plans to initiate a Phase I clinical study in mid-May. The first phase of the placebo-controlled study will enroll 130 healthy adults; the first round of data from that study is expected in July.

In March, the company said it had received $4 million from CEPI to develop a COVID-19 vaccine and that Emergent BioSolutions Inc. would support contract development and manufacturing for the experimental vaccine.

Sanofi is working with BARDA to test a preclinical vaccine candidate for severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) for COVID-19 using its recombinant DNA platform. A spokesperson said Sanofi aims to put a vaccine into a Phase 1 clinical trial between March 2021 and August 2021. It announced a separate program with Translate Bio Inc. TBIO, -5.08% on March 27 to develop an mRNA vaccine. The French drugmaker has a long history of producing vaccines in its Sanofi Pasteur business and acquired this candidate through its 2017 acquisition of Protein Sciences for $750 million. It previously worked with the organization on flu vaccines. Scientists in Meriden, Ct., are working on the vaccine; David Loew, Sanofi Pasteur’s EVP, is leading the project.

GSK announced in February that it will give access to its vaccine adjuvant platform to the University of Queensland in Australia. The company has also given access to Clover Biopharmaceuticals Inc who are using the tool in combination with their vaccine candidate, COVID-19 S-Trimer. GSK has also most recently partnered with Xiamen Innovax Biotech Co.

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One Comment

  1. Well, the western nations are not Saints either! Hacking, information stealing and related conducts are sponsored by the western nations too. If not, to what use are graduates of various programs such as MSc Ethical Hacking and Cyber Security (studied in British and American Universities) put upon completing their studies? Moreover, purchase of masters and doctoral thesis in Russia is not really different from the rampart use of professional writers by MSc and PhD students in the UK as well as in the US.

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