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Hackers are targeting the COVID-19 vaccine supply chain, IBM finds

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Analysts aren’t sure who’s behind the operation

Amelia Krales

A global phishing campaign has been targeting organizations associated with the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines since September 2020, IBM security researchers say.

In a blog post, analysts Claire Zaboeva and Melissa Frydrych of IBM X-Force IRIS announced that the phishing campaign spans six regions: Germany, Italy, South Korea, Czech Republic, greater Europe, and Taiwan.

The campaign appears to be focused on the “cold chain,” the segment of the vaccine supply chain that keeps doses cold during their storage and transportation. Some vaccines need to stay at extremely low temperatures in order to remain potent. Pfizer, for example, recommends that their COVID-19 vaccine be stored at negative 70 degrees Celsius (colder than winter in Antarctica). That poses a logistical challenge for the pharmaceutical company, which will need to transport millions upon millions of doses around the world at that temperature.

The attacks focused on groups associated with Gavi, an international organization that promotes vaccine access and distribution. Specifically, it targeted organizations related to their Cold Chain Equipment Optimization Platform (CCEOP), which aims to distribute and improve technology that can keep vaccines at very cold temperatures. These included the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Taxation and Customs Union, as well as “organizations within the energy, manufacturing, website creation and software and internet security solutions sectors.”

Per the blog post, the people behind the phishing operation sent emails to the organizations’ executives claiming to be an executive from CCEOP supplier Haier Biomedical. The emails, which purported to request quotations related to CCEOP, contained HTML attachments which asked for the opener’s credentials, which the actor could store and use to gain unauthorized access down the line.

“We assess that the purpose of this COVID-19 phishing campaign may have been to harvest credentials, possibly to gain future unauthorized access to corporate networks and sensitive information relating to the COVID-19 vaccine distribution,” reads the blog post.

It’s not yet clear who’s behind this campaign, but the researchers suspect a nation-state actor rather than a private individual or group. “Without a clear path to a cash-out, cyber criminals are unlikely to devote the time and resources required to execute such a calculated operation with so many interlinked and globally distributed targets,” the blog post reads. “Advanced insight into the purchase and movement of a vaccine that can impact life and the global economy is likely a high-value and high-priority nation-state target.”

IBM recommends that companies involved in COVID-19 vaccine storage and transport “be vigilant and remain on high alert during this time.” The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) has issued an alert encouraging the organizations to review IBM’s report.

COVID-19 vaccine research and development has been a target of multiple cyberattacks this year. The US government accused China of funding and operating hacking cells to steal vaccine research from the US and its allies in May, and charged two Chinese hackers with stealing data from firms working on COVID-19 treatments and vaccines in July. US, UK, and Canadian authorities denounced attacks from a group associated with Russian intelligence services on organizations involved in vaccine development this summer. In November, Microsoft detected cyberattacks from nation-state actors in Russia and North Korea on companies with COVID-19 vaccines in various stages of clinical trials.

Multiple companies have submitted COVID-19 vaccines for review to the Food and Drug Administration, including Pfizer / BioNTech and Moderna. The FDA’s vaccine advisory community will review the applications in mid-December; if the vaccines are authorized, distribution will begin shortly after. Moderna expects to have up to 20 million doses of its vaccine by the end of 2020, while Pfizer could provide up to 25 million.