U.S., U.K., Canada warn that Russian intelligence targeting COVID vaccine data

Cozy Bear is back, this time using spearphishing, public exploits and custom malware to break into organizations involved in developing a vaccine for the raging pandemic.

Coronavirus COVID-19 under the microscope. 3d illustration By Andrii Vodolazhskyi shutterstock ID: 1643947495

Cozy Bear, one of the same Russian Advanced Persistent Threat groups involved in the 2015 hack of the Democratic National Committee, has been targeting COVID-19 vaccine development in the United States, United Kingdom and Canada, according to a joint advisory released by all three countries.

The advisory, endorsed by the National Security Agency and Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, said the group is using a mix of spearphishing and recently published public exploits to gain initial access to organizations involved in developing or researching vaccines for the coronavirus before deploying custom malware known as “WellMess” and “WellMail” to download and exfiltrate targeted data. The document includes Indicators of Compromise for both pieces of malware.

“APT29 is likely to continue to target organisations involved in COVID-19 vaccine research and development, as they seek to answer additional intelligence questions relating to the pandemic,” the document states.

The Russian group has been using recently published exploits for a number of technologies, including VPNs made by Pulse Secure, Fortinet and Palo Alto, Zimbra email collaboration tools and Citrix Application Delivery Control and Gateway products. Both NSA and CISA have released warnings in the last two months about the potential exploitation of numerous vulnerabilities in commercial VPN software, particularly as many countries have sent their employees to work from home during the pandemic.

In a statement sent to FCW after publication, Fortinet spokesperson Tiffany Curci said the company could not confirm that the described vulnerabilities were used by APT 29, but it has been strongly urging users to patch since last year.

"In May 2019 Fortinet issued a [Product Security Incident Response Team] advisory regarding an SSL vulnerability that was resolved, and also communicated directly with customers and via a corporate blog post strongly recommending an upgrade," Curci said. "While we cannot confirm that the attack vectors for this group took place via this vulnerability, we are reaching out to customers and strongly urging them to implement the upgrade and mitigations."

Governments and security researchers have been sounding the alarm for months that vaccine organizations are being targeted by hackers, but much of that discussion has been focused on another rival power, China.

“The Chinese government has reportedly sponsored attacks against the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), hospitals, research laboratories, health care providers, and pharmaceutical companies with the goal of stealing COVID-19 treatment and vaccine research,” wrote Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), ranking Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, in a May 13 letter to President Donald Trump. “By targeting hospitals and health care providers, these state-sponsored hackers put the lives of Americans who are seeking care at risk.”

The widespread targeting of companies and public health organizations over the past six months has caused the NSA to prioritize protecting vaccine research and push more signals intelligence to American medical organizations.

"It wasn't [more than] a few days into March where phone calls were coming in to NSA asking us for our insights and our support to that community, and so we have doubled down and really accelerated and intensified efforts to reach out," Deputy Director George Barnes said in May.

In a July 16 speech in Grand Rapids, Mich., Attorney General Bill Barr said "PRC-linked hackers have targeted American universities and firms in a bid to steal IP related to coronavirus treatments and vaccines, sometimes disrupting the work of our researchers." Leaders in Beijing, he said, are "desperate for a public relations coup, and may hope that it will be able to claim credit for any medical breakthroughs."

However, others have also criticized the desire by some countries to keep such research secret, saying it amounts to hoarding during a deadly pandemic. Some groups have banded together to promote an open-source approach that would share such research among different countries in the hope of speeding up vaccine development.

The ultimate goal for some of these attacks are not always clear, though most believe it illustrates how desperate many countries are to gather intelligence from rivals on a potential vaccine to a pandemic that has caused intense disruption to global economic and social activities. Vaccine development typically takes years, but the Trump administration has attempted to dramatically cut down on that timeline through Operation Warp Speed, an initiative designed to develop 300 million doses of a workable vaccine by January 2021. Earlier this month, the National Institutes of Health announced it had established a network of clinical trials to test a variety of vaccines and antibodies related to the virus.

If successful, such research would be invaluable to other countries that are racing to develop their own response, and most expects believe there will be substantial delays and rationing of any vaccine once it is developed.

“COVID-19 is an existential threat to every government in the world, so it’s no surprise that cyber espionage capabilities are being used to gather intelligence on a cure,” said John Hultquist, Senior Director of Analysis at FireEye’s Mandiant Threat Intelligence in a statement. “The organizations developing vaccines and treatments for the virus are being heavily targeted by Russian, Iranian, and Chinese actors seeking a leg up on their own research. We’ve also seen significant COVID-related targeting of governments that began as early as January.”

This article was updated with comments from Fortinet.