EU agency assessing Covid-19 vaccines suffers cyberattack

The EU’s medicines regulator said Wednesday it had been the victim of a cyberattack, just weeks before it is due to decide on special approval for two coronavirus vaccines.

The Amsterdam-based European Medicines Agency (EMA) said the incident was being investigated but did not say exactly when it took place or give details about what was targeted.

“EMA has been the subject of a cyberattack. The agency has swiftly launched a full investigation, in close cooperation with law enforcement and other relevant entities,” the EMA said in a brief statement.

“EMA cannot provide additional details whilst the investigation is ongoing. Further information will be made available in due course.”

A spokeswoman for the agency referred back to the statement when asked for more details by AFP.

The EMA has said it will give a decision on conditional approval for Pfizer/BioNTech’s Covid-19 vaccine at a meeting that will be held by December 29 at the latest.

A ruling on Moderna’s version should follow by January 12.

The regulator is also carrying out reviews of vaccines developed by Oxford University-AstraZeneca vaccine and Johnson & Johnson.

The EMA moved to Amsterdam from London after Britain left the European Union in January 2019. It oversees all medicines for the 27-nation EU.

– Series of warnings –

The cyberattack on the EMA comes after a series of warnings about hacking related to the coronavirus pandemic.

Britain accused Russian-based, Kremlin-linked hackers in July of targeting labs conducting coronavirus vaccine research. 

Cybercriminals have tried to attack several pharmaceutical companies developing vaccines including Johnson & Johnson, Novavax, AstraZeneca and South Korean laboratories, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Spanish laboratories also reportedly have been attacked by Chinese cybercriminals, the El Pais newspaper reported in September. 

Microsoft urged a crackdown in November on cyberattacks perpetrated by states and “malign actors” after a spate of hacks disrupted healthcare organisations fighting the virus.

IBM said last week that it too had uncovered a string of attacks, again potentially carried out by state actors, against companies involved in the effort to distribute the vaccine.

The European Commission’s Directorate-General for Taxation and Customs Union was one target of the attacks, as well as European and Asian companies involved in the supply chain, IBM said. 

Meanwhile, it is not the first time a Netherlands-based international body has been targeted by hackers.

Dutch authorities expelled four alleged Russian intelligence agents in 2018 after an alleged bid to hack the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague, using equipment in the back of a car parked in a neighbouring hotel.

by Danny KEMP