North Korea authorised cyber gang to steal Britain’s Covid vaccine secrets, sources say

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North Korea authorised a state-sponsored cyber gang to pose as headhunters in an attempt to steal Britain’s Covid-19 vaccine secrets, security sources said on Friday.

The cyber criminals targeted AstraZeneca, the pharmaceutical company working with Oxford University to develop the UK’s Covid vaccine. Initial results suggest the Oxford vaccine is anywhere between 60 per cent and 90 per cent effective, and regulators have now been asked to appraise it.

The hackers approached staff working with AstraZeneca, based at its headquarters in Cambridge, with fake job offers. Posing as recruiters working on behalf of rival firms, they sent messages over the past few weeks via the social networking site LinkedIn and also through messaging service WhatsApp.

AstraZeneca employees were then sent documents, claiming to be job descriptions, which included malicious computer code designed to allow the hackers access to the company’s computer systems.

The tools and techniques used by the cyber gang are commonly deployed by North Korea, and security sources have confirmed that the country is believed to be behind the attempted hack. Sources said the attempt was believed to have been unsuccessful.

The targeting of AstraZeneca comes just a few weeks after Downing Street took the unusual step of going public in accusing Russia of being behind a separate “despicable” cyber attack on Britain’s two vaccine teams, the one at Oxford and another run by Imperial College London.

The National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), the intelligence agency tasked with protecting the UK from cyber warfare, said at the time it had the “highest level of confidence” that the Kremlin was behind the “ongoing” attack.

On Friday, the NCSC declined to give further detail on the North Korean hack but did not deny that attempts had been made by the rogue state to steal vaccine secrets.

An NCSC spokesman said: “Working alongside our allies, the NCSC is committed to protecting our most critical assets, the health sector and crucial vaccine research and development against threats.”

The respected Reuters news agency said the North Korean gang had targeted a…