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US, Canada, UK accuse Russia of hacking COVID-19 vaccine trials

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Britain, the United States and Canada alleged Thursday that hackers backed up by the Russian government are attempting to steal information from pharmaceutical companies and researchers racing to find a COVID-19 vaccine.

What We Know:

  • Britain’s National Cybersecurity Centre stated that they were almost certain that the hackers were connected to Russia’s intelligence services. Britain made the announcement in coordination with authorities in the U.S. and Canada.
  • The three nations alleged that hacking group APT29 is attacking academic and drug research institutions involved in coronavirus vaccine development. The announcement did not specify which institutions and companies had been targeted or whether any vaccine information had been stolen.
  • “It is completely unacceptable that the Russian Intelligence Services are targeting those working to combat the coronavirus pandemic,″ Dominic Raab, Britain’s foreign secretary, said in a statement. “While others pursue their selfish interests with reckless behavior, the U.K. and its allies are getting on with the hard work of finding a vaccine and protecting global health.”
  • The National Cyber Security Centre stated that it had detected a prolonged campaign of malicious activity Russia backed hackers. These include attacks that were “predominantly against government, diplomatic, think-tank, healthcare and energy targets.”
  • The statement from the National Cybersecurity Centre did not include whether Russian President Vladimir Putin knew about the vaccine research hacking.
  • Matthew Schmidt, a political scientist at the University of New Haven, stated that the hacked vaccine research is a “statement of the weakness of Russian science under 20 years of Putin’s rule.”
  • A 16-page advisory made public by Britain, the U.S. and Canada on Thursday accuses hacking group APT29, also known as Cozy Bear of using custom malicious software to target a number of organizations globally. The malware, called WellMess and WellMail, has not previously been associated with the hacking group, the advisory said.
  • “In recent attacks targeting COVID-19 vaccine research and development, the group conducted basic vulnerability scanning against specific external IP addresses owned by the organizations. The group then deployed public exploits against the vulnerable services identified,” the advisory said.

In April, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s cybersecurity agency warned that cybercriminals and other groups were targeting COVID-19 research. Noting that at the time the increase in people teleworking because of the pandemic had created potential avenues for hackers to exploit.

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Coronavirus

Journal of Neuroscience Study Finds Psychological Importance of Face-to-Face Interaction

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Image credit: Naeblys/Shutterstock.com

Following a pandemic filled with online social events and strict gathering restraints, many Americans are now accustomed to socializing, working, and spending leisure time online. Bonding in-person, however, has strong mental, physical, and emotional benefits originating in distinct brain stimulation.

What We Know:

  • Evidence using EEG (electroencephalogram) brain scans suggests real-life socialization activates stronger connections and comfort levels compared to digital socialization. The study created three groups: one that was exposed to photos of a person, another that was exposed to a television show with a person in it, and the last actually meeting a person. EEGs were taken for members of each group both before and after the exposure, measuring familiarity and identity activity in the brain.
  • Researchers discovered a high familiarity quality for the physical interaction group, a low familiarity quality for the group exposed to a TV show, and nonexistent familiarity for the group exposed to only photos of a person. Strong familiarity is tied to faster and more intense connections, demonstrating the importance of face-to-face interaction for building relationships.
  • The face-to-face interaction group only spent 3 hours with a person while the other groups spent 20 hours watching a person on television or 20 hours looking at photos, yet the face-to-face group still made stronger connections. Exemplified is the rapid familiarity and connection built between two people interacting in person.
  • In the digital age, as well as during COVID, online communication is normal. Consequentially, with in-person communication falling second, communicators miss out on reading body language and picking up on nearly unrecognizable facial changes. In-person communication is especially important for children, many of which have been out of school due to pandemic safety measures. Face-to-face communication helps children build skills that enhance their socioemotional development.

Face-to-face meetups provide the dopamine and oxytocin that support trust, bonding, and connection to others. For overall health, wellbeing, and happiness, socializing in real life is a scientifically significant aspect.

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France, Belgium Ease Virus Curbs

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On Wednesday, France and Belgium announced they would begin easing their COVID-19 restrictions; the countries would do this by allowing cafes and restaurants to serve indoors, dropping overnight curfews, and more.

What We Know:

  • The two nations’ leaders made the announcements, respectively. France’s Emmanuel Macron took to Twitter for his declaration. In his tweet, he emphasized the French citizens’ longing to return to normalcy while also advising people to continue following precautions. French people may now enjoy outdoor dining and stay out past 11 P.M. Additionally, Macron intends on removing the overnight curfew by June 30.

  • Belgium’s Prime Minister Alexander De Croo stated the country will now permit parties of up to four people to dine indoors. Indoor events can now function with no more than 200 people, or 75% capacity. Furthermore, their work-from-home mandate is still in effect, but employees may request to spend one day in the office. Employers may accept this request as long as larger offices maintain a daily capacity of 20% of workers.
  • The vaccine rollout across Europe facilitated the newfound lenience. Across the continent, nations are encouraging their subjects to get vaccinated in an attempt to “strike a balance” between public health and reviving industries. Europe wants to renew tourism across the continent, as pandemic travel restrictions devastated the sector the most.

  • To boost travel, the European Parliament voted on Wednesday to approve the Digital Covid Certificate. The new document will permit those who received the vaccine, tested negative, or recently recovered from COVID-19 to travel across the European Union (EU) countries.

Currently, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Lithuania, Poland, and Spain already issued millions of certificates to EU residents.

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Biden Administration Purchases 500 Million More Vaccines For Global Distribution

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(Patrick Semansky/AP)

The Biden administration is slated to purchase 500 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine from Pfizer to donate globally.

What We Know:

  • Previously, the Biden administration’s goal was to distribute 80 million doses worldwide by the end of the month. However, global demand for richer countries with excess doses to distribute has increased significantly.
  • 200 million of the vaccines are going to be distributed through COVAX, a World Health Organization-backed initiative. 300 million will be distributed in the first half of 2022. All of these vaccines are going to low or middle-income countries.
  • Britain is hosting the Group of Seven summit, which will primarily focus on how to close the vaccine gap and end the pandemic. Currently, more than half the populations of the U.S. and Britain have received at least the first dose of the vaccine. In Africa, this number is less than 2%. Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security advisor, told reporters, “The president is focused on helping to vaccinate the world because he believes it is the right thing to do; it’s what Americans do in times of need.”
  • Jennifer Nuzzo, epidemiologist and senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, applauded the effort, saying it “sends a profound signal in terms of U.S. commitment to global health security”. The hope is that, by announcing this at G7, other countries in the EU will be encouraged to do the same. International Health Organizations warn that the virus needs to be curtailed in order to prevent more dangerous variants.
  • As the Biden administration looks globally, vaccination rates in the U.S. have begun to drop. This decrease, coupled with exposure to a new variant called “delta”, has been a cause for concern. The ability for this and other new strains to spread due to a stagnation in vaccination is on the mind of health officials. Despite this, they said the global effort needs to take priority.
  • COVAX aimed to deliver 2 billion doses by the end of the year and vaccinate 20% of the populations of countries in need. These hopes have seemed unattainable due to a lack of funding and a severe supply crunch. To date, they have delivered just under 82 million doses to 129 countries.
  • The efforts of the Biden administration to distribute vaccines globally have garnered both worldwide and bipartisan support. Republican Senator Richard Burr stated, “This is exactly what the federal government should be doing: working with the companies who developed lifesaving COVID-19 vaccines to make them available to the rest of the world.”

Biden is expected to announce his plan at the G7 meeting with Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla. “We have to end COVID-19, not just at home, which we’re doing, but everywhere,” Biden said. 

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