The UK and US warned on Tuesday that government-backed hackers were trying to hack healthcare and medical research bodies amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The joint statement was released by the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) and the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA).

The statement said hacking attempts had been made “actively targeting organisations involved in both national and international COVID-19 responses” in order to “obtain intelligence on national and international healthcare policy or acquire sensitive data” on research related to the virus.

The two agencies said they had seen large-scale “password spraying” campaigns to collect personal information, intellectual property and other intelligence.

Password spraying is a form of cyberattack in which a large number of accounts are hacked using common passwords.

The hackers are attempting to harvest information on the coronavirus outbreak from national and international healthcare institutions, pharmaceutical companies, research organizations and local governments.

“Protecting the healthcare sector is the NCSC’s first and foremost priority at this time, and we’re working closely with the NHS to keep their systems safe,” said NCSC Director of Operations Paul Chichester.

“By prioritising any requests for support from health organisations and remaining in close contact with industries involved in the coronavirus response, we can inform them of any malicious activity and take the necessary steps to help them defend against it,” he added, according to a press release on the NCSC website.

Also quoted in the press release was CISA Assistant Director Bryan Ware who said: “CISA has prioritized our cybersecurity services to healthcare and private organizations that provide medical support services and supplies in a concerted effort to prevent incidents and enable them to focus on their response to COVID-19,

“The trusted and continuous cybersecurity collaboration CISA has with NCSC and industry partners plays a critical role in protecting the public and organizations, specifically during this time as healthcare organizations are working at maximum capacity.”

Last week, local media reported that British universities and scientific institutions had been targeted by hackers traced back to Russia, Iran and likely China, as well.

The cyberattacks were allegedly attempting to steal coronavirus research, including on vaccines. There have been no successful attacks to date.

The NCSC said at the time: “Any attack against efforts to combat the coronavirus crisis is utterly reprehensible. We have seen an increased proportion of cyber-attacks related to coronavirus and our experts work around the clock to help organisations targeted.

“However, the overall level of cyber-attacks from both criminals and states against the UK has remained stable during the pandemic.”

Since first appearing in Wuhan, China last December, the novel coronavirus, officially known as COVID-19, has spread to at least 187 countries and regions, with the US and Europe the hardest-hit areas.

More than 3.6 million cases have been reported worldwide, with the death toll nearing 253,000 and more than 1.17 million recoveries, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University in the US.

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