Oxford University disclosed on Thursday that one of its research labs dedicated in part to studying COVID-19 suffered a cyberattack, following an investigation from Forbes indicating external access to a number of the lab’s systems.
The lab is part of Oxford’s Division of Structural Biology, known as “Strubi.” There’s no indication the lab or its research had any direct connection to ongoing COVID-19 vaccine development conducted by the Oxford Vaccine Group and the Jenner Institute. But it’s unclear exactly what data may have been compromised.
Forbes says it was shown proof of the intrusion by Alex Holden, the chief technology officer of a cybersecurity firm called Hold Security, who provided screenshots showing access to lab equipment with active intruders as recent as February 14th. It’s not clear if the intent was to steal valuable lab data or to potentially sabotage ongoing research.
“We have identified and contained the problem and are now investigating further,” an Oxford University spokesperson tells Forbes. “There has been no impact on any clinical research, as this is not conducted in the affected area.”
Oxford confirmed to Forbes that some of the machines that were accessed included purification devices for handling biochemical samples, some of which included proteins used in ongoing coronavirus research. Forbes reports that the attackers may not have been connected to any nation-state and instead may have been seeking out valuable research to sell on underground markets.
Oxford contacted the UK’s National Cyber Security Center (NCSC), which now says it’s conducting an investigation. “We are aware of an incident affecting Oxford University and are working to fully understand its impact,” an NCSC spokesperson told Forbes.