AstraZeneca confirms Russia vaccine deal days after COVID-19 hacking accusations surface

Last week, Western intelligence officials pegged Russian hackers with an attempt to rip off leading research for a COVID-19 vaccine, linking the would-be thieves with the country's intelligence services.

Russia itself denies involvement in any of those attacks—and with a new licensing deal for AstraZeneca's COVID-19 shot, the country says it doesn't need the secrets anyway.

Russian drugmaker R-Pharm has signed a licensing deal with Britain's AstraZeneca to produce and distribute doses of its University of Oxford-partnered adenovirus-based COVID-19 shot, AZD1222.

As part of the agreement, R-Pharm will export Oxford's shot to markets in the Commonwealth of Independent States—a nine-country economic group including Russia and post-Soviet republics—the Middle East and the Balkans, an AstraZeneca spokesman said.

The number of doses included in the deal has yet to be determined, AstraZeneca said.

AstraZeneca's newest pact was unveiled as U.S., U.K. and Canadian officials fingered Russian intelligence in an attempt to hack Western vaccine research. An agreement with AstraZeneca will complement Russia's attempts to produce its own COVID-19 vaccine, which the country said could snare regulatory approval as early as September.

Russia is using the deal with AstraZeneca to bat back accusations that it engaged in corporate espionage to steal vaccine secrets, but Western intelligence officials have reason to be skeptical.

RELATED: Russian hackers feverishly working to steal COVID-19 vaccine research, governments say

Last week, the U.K.’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) accused hacker group APT29 of attempting to strip-mine Western research on a possible COVID-19 vaccine.

The group, which also goes by the names “the Dukes” or “Cozy Bear,” is “almost certainly” part of Russian intelligence, NCSC says. Canadian and U.S. government agencies agreed with the analysis.

APT29 has targeted COVID-19 vaccine researchers in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K., “highly likely with the intention of stealing information and intellectual property relating to the development and testing of COVID-19 vaccines,” analyst said.

The group is using malware called “WellMess” and “WellMail” to target groups worldwide, NCSC says, including COVID-19 vaccine researchers. With COVID-19 vaccines being a key component to defeat COVID-19 and return economies to normal, the work is clearly a target for cyber criminals. 

APT29 is likely to continue the attacks, NCSC says, so the agency recommended researchers closely follow “indicators of compromise” it detailed in the report.