Britain’s spies defending COVID-19 vaccine work

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British spies are defending COVID-19 vaccine work against hostile powers seeking to either steal or sabotage research data in the race for the global prize of a jab that can provide immunity, the head of MI5 said.

Oxford University’s vaccine candidate, licensed to AstraZeneca, is in late stage trials, while a vaccine candidate developed by Imperial College London is in early stage clinical trials.

“Clearly, the global prize of a first useable vaccine against this deadly virus is a large one, so we would expect other parties around the globe would be interested in the research,” Security Service Director General Ken McCallum told reporters.

McCallum, in his first major remarks since being named new boss of MI5 in March when the United Kingdom was under national lockdown, said there were a range of threats against the vaccine work.

“I guess there are two we are on the lookout for: attempts either to steal unique intellectual property generated in research or potentially to fiddle with the data,” he said.

“And the second risk we have to be alive to is the possibility the research is still high integrity and sound but somebody tries to sow doubt about its integrity.”

Britain’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) said in July hackers backed by the Russian state were trying to steal COVID-19 vaccine and treatment research from academic and pharmaceutical institutions worldwide.

More than 150 potential vaccines are being developed and tested globally to stop the COVID-19 pandemic, with 42 in human trials, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

MI5 traces its history back to 1909 when Britain tried to counter German espionage ahead of World War One and is tasked with protecting British national security. Its main job is currently countering international terrorism though it is also a counter-intelligence agency.