Chinese hackers targeted Indian COVID-19 vaccine makers Serum Institute & Bharat Biotech, claims MI6

Chinese state-backed hacking group has recently has targeted the IT system of two Indian vaccine makers whose COVID-19 shots are being used in the country’s immunization drive. The claim has been made by British intelligence service MI6

By Harkirpal Singh, Updated : Mar 02, 2021 13:06 IST
Chinese hackers targeted Indian COVID-19 vaccine makers Serum Institute & Bharat Biotech, claims MI6
Chinese hackers targeted Indian COVID-19 vaccine makers Serum Institute & Bharat Biotech, claims MI6

According to defense sources, A Chinese state-backed hacking group has in recent weeks targeted the IT systems of two Indian vaccine makers whose coronavirus shots are being used in the country’s vaccination campaign, cyber intelligence firm Cyfirma reported.

Rivals China and India have both sold or gifted COVID-19 doses to many countries. India produces more than 60% of all vaccines sold in the world.

Goldman Sachs-backed Cyfirma, based in Singapore and Tokyo, said Chinese hacker group APT10, also known as Stone Panda, had identified gaps and vulnerabilities in the IT infrastructure and supply chain software of Bharat Biotech and the Serum Institute of India (SII), the world’s largest vaccine maker.

“The real motivation here is actually exfiltrating intellectual property and getting a competitive advantage over Indian pharmaceutical companies,” said Cyfirma Chief Executive Kumar Ritesh, formerly a top cyber official with British secret foreign intelligence agency MI6. 

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He said APT10 was actively targeting SII, which is making the AstraZeneca vaccine for many countries and will soon start bulk-manufacturing Novavax shots.“In the case of Serum Institute, they have found a number of their public servers running weak web servers, these are vulnerable web servers,” Ritesh said, referring to the hackers.

“They have spoken about the weak web applications, they are also talking about the weak content-management systems. It’s quite alarming.”China’s foreign ministry did not reply to a request for comment.

SII and Bharat Biotech declined to comment. The office of the director-general of the state-run Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT) said the matter had been handed to its operations director, S.S. Sarma.

Sarma told that CERT was a “legal agency and we can’t confirm this thing to media”.Cyfirma said in a statement it had informed CERT authorities and that they had acknowledged the threat.“They checked and they came back,” Cyfirma said. “Our technical analysis and evaluation verified the threats and attacks.”

The U.S. Department of Justice said in 2018 that APT10 had acted in association with the Chinese Ministry of State Security.

Microsoft said in November that it had detected cyberattacks from Russia and North Korea targeting COVID-19 vaccine companies in India, Canada, France, South Korea, and the United States. North Korean hackers also tried to break into the systems of British drugmaker AstraZeneca.

Ritesh, whose firm follows the activities of some 750 cybercriminals and monitors nearly 2,000 hacking campaigns using a tool called DeCYFIR, said it was not yet clear what vaccine-related information APT10 may have accessed from the Indian companies.

Bharat Biotech’s COVAXIN shot, developed with the state-run Indian Council of Medical Research, will be exported to many countries, including Brazil.

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U.S. drugmaker Pfizer Inc and its German partner BioNTech SE said in December that documents related to the development of their COVID-19 vaccine had been “unlawfully accessed” in a cyberattack on Europe’s medicines regulator.

Chinese hackers recently also targetted an electrical power grid in Mumbai last year which led to a power outage in various areas of the city including suspension of railway operations. 

Relations between nuclear-armed neighbors China and India soured last June when 20 Indian and 35 Chinese soldiers were killed in a Himalayan border fight. Recent talks have eased the tension.

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