• Russia denies allegations it is attempting to steal coronavirus vaccine research
  • The hackers are linked to Cozy Bear, the same group that hacked Democratic party emails during the 2016 presidential race
  • Russia said it is developing 26 vaccines on its own and two are in human trials

U.S. and British intelligence officials Thursday accused Russian hackers of attempting to steal coronavirus research as scientists around the world work on vaccines and treatments for the disease that has killed more than a half-million people in less than a year.

The National Security Agency said western intelligence agencies have linked the hackers to a group informally known as Cozy Bear or APT29 – the same group believed responsible for hacking Democratic party emails during the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

“The group uses a variety of tools and techniques to predominantly target governmental, diplomatic, think-tank, healthcare and energy targets for intelligence gain,” the NSA said in an advisory.

“Throughout 2020, APT29 has targeted various organizations involved in COVID-19 vaccine development in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom, highly likely with the intention of stealing information and intellectual property relating to the development and testing of COVID-19 vaccines.”

Britain’s National Cyber Security Centre said the “malicious activity” is ongoing.

“We condemn these despicable attacks against those doing vital work to combat the coronavirus pandemic,” NCSC director of operations Paul Chichester said in a press release.

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab called the hack “completely unacceptable.”

Russia pushed back against the allegations.

Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, told the state-run Tass news agency Russia “has nothing at all” to do with the alleged hacking.

Kirill Dmitriev, director of the Russian Direct Investment Fund, said the allegations are ludicrous given that Astra-Zeneca already has provided Russian researchers with technology developed at Oxford University.

“I think this whole story is an attempt to tarnish the reputation of the Russian vaccine with some people who are afraid of its success. Because the Russian vaccine could potentially be the first on the market and potentially the most effective of all,” he told Times Radio.

The NSA said the hackers used malware known as “WellMess” and “WellMail” to break into its targets. British officials said the hackers scanned computer IP addresses and then deployed the malware.

Currently more than 160 vaccines are being developed, with 23 in human trials, the World Health Organization said.

Russia has reported more than 750,600 cases of coronavirus with nearly 12,000 deaths from COVID-19 although experts speculate the numbers are much higher. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golicova said Wednesday Russian scientists are working on 26 vaccines, with two in human trials.

NSA had warned earlier that China would likely try to steal research.