MI5 has been working to protect UK research on COVID-19 vaccines from theft or sabotage by hostile foreign states, the head of the security agency has revealed.
In his first media appearance since taking over as MI5 director-general in April, Ken McCallum said on Wednesday that, while MI5’s largest mission remains countering terrorism, its 2020 agenda “has been dominated by the pandemic.”
In addition to advising the government on the pandemic itself, he said, MI5 has been “working to protect the integrity of UK research” on the vaccine.
“Clearly, the global prize of having a first useable vaccine against this deadly virus is a large one, so we would expect that a range of other parties around the globe would be quite interested in that research,” he told reporters.
He said there were a range of threats against the vaccine development work.
“I guess there are two bits we are on the lookout for: attempts either to steal unique intellectual property that’s been generated in that research, or potentially to fiddle with the data,” he said.
“And then the second risk we’ve got to be alive to is the possibility that the research is still high integrity and sound, but that somebody tries to sow doubt about its integrity.”
The government has repeatedly warned against Chinese attempts to steal vaccine research from Western institutions.
In July, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab expressed concerns over evidence that the Chinese regime was engaged in malicious cyber attacks against commercial, medical, and academic institutions in 11 countries, including in the UK.
It followed the U.S. indictment of two Chinese hackers for stealing millions of dollars worth of trade secrets and other sensitive information, and attempting to steal research on the COVID-19 pandemic, which is caused by the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus.
In May, the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) and the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) issued a joint advisory, exposing malicious cyber campaigns targeting international health-care and medical research organizations involved in the coronavirus response.
‘A Nasty Mix’
The UK is facing ‘more diverse’ threats, some of which are more difficult to spot, said McCallum. “We face a nasty mix—terrorism isn’t going away, and state-backed hostile activity is on the rise.”
“In the 2020s, one of the toughest challenges facing MI5 and indeed government is that the differing national security challenges presented by Russian, Chinese, Iranian and other actors are growing in severity and in complexity,” he said.
The Chinese regime has sought to hack commercially sensitive data and intellectual property as well as to interfere in politics, he said.
He also said Britain had disrupted a Chinese espionage plot aimed against the European Union, but gave no further details.
“On China, we need expansive teamwork—a broad conversation across government and crucially beyond, to reach wise judgements around how the UK interacts with China on both opportunities and risks,” said the MI5 chief.
Reuters contributed to this report.