16 July 2020
UK accuses Russia of meddling in 2019 election and stealing vaccine research

UK accuses Russia of meddling in 2019 election and stealing vaccine research

Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP

Britain on Thursday accused the Russian government of hacking COVID-19 vaccine research and attempting to influence the country's general election last year.

Russian actors "almost certainly" attempted to interfere in the 2019 UK general election by spreading illegally acquired documents, the British government said Thursday.

"Sensitive government documents relating to the UK-U.S. Free Trade Agreement were illicitly acquired before the 2019 general election and disseminated online via the social media platform Reddit," foreign secretary Dominic Raab said in a statement to parliament.

"When these gained no traction, further attempts were made to promote the illicitly acquired material online in the run up to the general election."

The official went on to say that there is "no evidence of a broad spectrum Russian campaign against the general election," adding that any attempt to meddle in UK democracy was "completely unacceptable."

Raab made his comments hours after parliament’s intelligence and security committee announced it would publish of a long-delayed report on Russian influence in British politics next week.

The main opposition Labour party said the files proved the government would sell off the state-run National Health Service (NHS) to US companies, with party leader Jeremy Corbyn presenting a copy of the leaked documents at a press conference in late November last year. The UK government has denied the claims.

Although not directly targeted at the Kremlin, the accusation will likely worsen the already fragile relationship between London and Moscow.

“The British leadership is again making the same anti-Russian mistakes and not only further undermining ties with Moscow but also its own authority,” Reuters quoted Leonid Slutsky, a member of the State Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament, as saying.

Slutsky, who heads the Duma's international affairs committee, called the allegations “more Russian nonsense.”

The news was followed up by a warning from US, UK and Canadian intelligence agencies who said Russian hackers have been trying to steal information related to the development of a coronavirus vaccine.

UK's National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) said in a joint advisory on Thursday that it was "almost certain" (at a 95% level) that Russian hacker groups known as APT29, Cozy Bear and The Dukes operated as "part of Russian intelligence services" and targeted medical research and development organizations.

"Throughout 2020, APT29 has targeted various organisations 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," the NCSC said in a statement.

The agency believes that the activity intended to "collect information on COVID-19 vaccine research or research into the COVID-19 virus itself." It remains unclear which organizations have been targeted and whether any information has been stolen.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said: "It is completely unacceptable that the Russian intelligence services are targeting those working to combat the coronavirus pandemic."

"While others pursue their selfish interests with reckless behaviour, the UK and its allies are getting on with the hard work of finding a vaccine and protecting global health."

Russia has responded by denying both accusations.

"We have no information as to who might have hacked pharmaceutical companies and research centres in the UK. We can say one thing – Russia has nothing to do with these attempts. We do not accept such accusations, as well as the allegations of interference in the 2019 elections," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told state-run news agency TASS on Thursday.

Relations between Russia and the UK hit a post-Cold War low in 2018 when London blamed Moscow for trying to kill former double agent Sergey Skripal on British soil with a nerve agent known as Novichok. Russia has denied its involvement in the attempted murder.