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IBM uncovers "precision phishing campaign" targeting global COVID-19 vaccine cold chain supply

Published on 04/12/20 at 12:03pm

US tech firm IBM has reported that it has identified attempts by unknown parties to hack and disrupt elements of the global supply chain established to distribute soon-to-be-approved COVID-19 vaccines around the world.

IBM’s Security X-Force said on 3 December that it had uncovered evidence of a “precision phishing campaign” that attempted to exploit weaknesses in the cold chain needed to deliver COVID-19 vaccines like the ones in development from Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech.

Because of the nature of these mRNA vaccine candidates, they must be stored at -70°C in order to maintain their efficacy and utility. Such vaccines will be delivered to their destination in special dry ice packs to maintain these temperature levels during transit, and upon arrival must either be used within ten days or stored for up to six months in special freezer farms. By storing the vaccine in a conventional fridge at between 2°C and 8°C, it can last up to five days.

IBM’s team reported that phishing emails were delivered in six countries around the world under the identity of an executive at Chinese cold chain provider Haier Biomedical, with the goal of gathering intelligence on the workings of the global COVID-19 vaccine supply line.

Targets included the Cold Chain Equipment Optimisation Platform (CCEOP) of the international vaccine alliance Gavi, as well as the European Commission's Directorate General Taxation and Customs Union, a South Korean software company, and even solar panel manufacturers whose products are used to power cold storage units in remote areas.

While the perpetrators could not be accurately identified at this stage, IBM believes it has a good idea of the origin of the attacks.

"The precision targeting and nature of the specific targeted organisations potentially point to nation-state activity," the US company firm said. “Advanced insight into the purchase and movement of a vaccine that can impact life and the global economy is likely a high-value and high-priority nation-state target.”

Matt Fellows

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