Cybersecurity Pharma under fire

These risks are top of mind for the pharmaceutical and healthcare sectors, along with their cybersecurity partners. Vaccine manufacturers Pfizer and BioNTech have said some of their documents were hacked from the European Medicines Agency (EMA), while Indian pharma company Dr Reddy’s was forced to shut all its production facilities in the wake of a cyberattack. The UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) has reported on over 200 attacks related to the Covid-19 pandemic – including an attack on vaccine research “almost certainly” from Russian intelligence services. Also attributed to Russia was the SolarWinds hack, a colossal data breach affecting US federal agencies and private companies. While cybersecurity is always important, the current vaccine rollout brings an extra dimension of precarity. Perhaps not surprisingly, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires vaccine data to be physically delivered by FBI agents, as opposed to submitted electronically. “Critical infrastructure of any kind becomes more vulnerable in a crisis,” says Robert Morgus, senior director for the US Cyberspace Solarium Commission (CSC). “There have been state- sponsored hacks against US healthcare infrastructure, as well as against institutions that are conducting Covid-19 vaccine and treatment research. These exploits have primarily been attempts to gather information on medical data. However, the potential expansion of such attacks could strain scarce resources.”

In March 2020, right at the start of the pandemic, the CSC released a lengthy report urging the US government and private sector to adopt a “new, strategic approach to cybersecurity”. Sombrely titled ‘A Warning for Tomorrow’, the report included more than 80 recommendations to Congress around improving “cyber deterrence”. It was later updated in light of the Covid-19 pandemic, to reflect the additional risks that had emerged. The so-called ‘Pannex’ included four new recommendations: urging Congress to pass an internet of things security law; increasing support to cybersecurity non-profits; support for establishing a Social Media Data and Threat Analysis Center; and increasing non-governmental capacity to identify and counter foreign influence campaigns. The white paper also highlighted some of the original recommendations, such as building societal resilience to disinformation. “The Covid-19 pandemic has caused a major disruption to the economy and day-to-day life,” says Morgus. “As a result, it has illustrated the challenges with building and maintaining a resilient cyber ecosystem in a modern, connected world. While criminal tactics and targets haven’t changed,

cyberthreat actors are able to take greater advantage of increasingly vulnerable businesses, governments and individuals.”

A newfound insecurity

Part of the issue is that people are working from home more, in less secure digital environments. This has led to a surge in fraud and malicious activity. The cybersecurity company McAfee has estimated that cybercrime costs surpassed $1trn in 2020, 50% higher than in 2018 and accounting for more than 1% of global GDP. Within the healthcare sector specifically, the stats are galling. Cloud provider VMware Carbon Black said that its healthcare customers experienced 239.4 million attempted cyberattacks in 2020, or an average 816 attempted attacks per endpoint. This was an astonishing 9,851% increase on 2019. “Necessary social distancing has created a newfound reliance on cloud services and other technologies that allow for remote work and school,” says Morgus. “This reinforces the importance of secure cloud platforms and digitisation more broadly. Businesses are more reliant on the security of cyber infrastructure, as they have far less ability to shield devices from compromise or disruption.”

He points out that criminals, like nation states, often seek out soft targets, or those that are less mature in terms of cyberposture.

“This has led to criminals targeting small and medium-sized businesses and state and local governments in the US with ransomware campaigns,” he says. “Outsourcing IT and security to managed service providers, including mainstream cloud service providers, is often the best way for these entities to mature their cybersecurity posture while keeping costs manageable.”

Defence & Security Systems International /

The European Medicines Agency was reportedly hacked in order to obtain documents from vaccine manufacturers Pfizer and BioNTech.


Cost of cybercrime in 2020.


239.4 million

The number of attempted cyberattacks on VMware Carbon Black’s healthcare customers in 2020.

VMware Carbon Black 19

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