Cyber criminals put U.S. COVID-19 research efforts at risk, says VT cybersecurity expert

Virginia Tech cybersecurity expert Aaron Brantly says that recent reports by multiple Western intelligence agencies indicate that Russia, and now China, are engaged in sustained espionage operations against universities and pharmaceutical companies in the U.S. surrounding COVID-19 vaccine research.

Brantly is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science and an affiliated faculty member at the Hume Center for National Security and Technology at Virginia Tech. He is a Cyber Policy Fellow at the Army Cyber Institute and non-resident Cyber Fellow at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. His research focuses on national security policy issues in cyberspace including big data, terrorism, intelligence, decision-making and human rights.

According to Brantly, “The history of Russian and Chinese intelligence efforts on U.S. medical and biological research is not new and this should come at no surprise.

“Russia’s present target of their espionage is research on treatments and vaccines for COVID-19,” said Brantly. “Their efforts are targeted toward supplementing Russian treatment and vaccination research efforts.

“For decades following World War II, the Soviet Union engaged in sustained intelligence activities to understand and exploit U.S. biological warfare programs,” said Brantly. 

“The selection of intelligence targets by Russian intelligence matches Russian geostrategic needs, whether nuclear secrets in the post war era, space and rocketry in the 1960s and 70s, or intelligence on medical treatments.,” said the VT cybersecurity expert.

“The manner in which Russia is leveraging the chaos and confusion to undermine public discourse around COVID-19 is not new and harkens back to previous efforts such as Operation Infektion, a program designed to undermine the global response to HIV/AIDS and pin responsibility for its development on the United States,” Brantly said.

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