Britain, the United States and Canada have accused Russian spies of targeting scientists seeking to develop a coronavirus vaccine.
In a joint statement, the three allies said hackers linked to Russian intelligence were seeking to steal the secrets of research bodies around the world, including in the UK.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said Moscow’s actions were “completely unacceptable” and that the UK was committed to countering such attacks.
In a separate development, Mr Raab also accused “Russian actors” of trying to “interfere” in last year’s general election.
He said Russians had been responsible for “amplifying” leaked documents used by Labour during the campaign to claim the Conservatives were preparing to “sell off” the NHS to US pharmaceutical companies.
However, he stopped short of linking their activities to the Russian state.
Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Maria Zakharova dismissed his claims as “ambiguous” and “confusing”.
“At this juncture it is premature to make any statements on our behalf, but let me say this: this statement is so ambiguous and so confusing that it is unclear what they are trying to say,” she said.
Mr Raab’s attack came as Britain’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), the US National Security Agency and Canada’s Communication Security Establishment (CSE) issued a joint warning regarding the activities of a group of hackers known as APT29.
It said they were part of a “malicious campaign” targeting pharmaceutical and academic institutions engaged in research into Covid-19 vaccines and therapeutics around the world.
The three agencies said they had jointly assessed that APT29, also known as the Dukes or Cozy Bear, was “almost certainly” operating as part of the Russian intelligence services.
The NCSC declined to to name the organisations which had been targeted but confirmed that they included scientists working in Britain.
The UK is home to two of the leading research programmes seeking to develop a vaccine based at Oxford University and Imperial College London.
The NCSC director of operations, Paul Chichester, said: “We condemn these despicable attacks against those doing vital work to combat the coronavirus pandemic.
“Working with our allies, the NCSC is committed to protecting our most critical assets and our top priority at this time is to protect the health sector.”
APT29 has been operating for a number of years but this is the first time the NCSC, which is part of the GCHQ spy agency, has publicly linked it to Russian intelligence
The group was previously implicated in attacks on the Democratic Party during the 2016 US presidential elections and it activities are said to be known at the “highest level” of the Russian state.
Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic it is said to have been targeting research into vaccines and therapeutics in multiple countries.
According to the NCSC, it uses a variety of techniques, including “spear-phishing” and custom malware known as “WellMess” and “WellMail” to target and then “weaponise” known weaknesses in software systems.
Mr Raab, said: “It is completely unacceptable that the Russian intelligence services are targeting those working to combat the coronavirus pandemic.
“While others pursue their selfish interests with reckless behaviour, the UK and its allies are getting on with the hard work of finding a vaccine and protecting global health.
“The UK will continue to counter those conducting such cyber attacks, and work with our allies to hold perpetrators to account.”
Mr Raab also said it was “almost certain” that Russian “actors” were involved in promoting “stolen” Government documents relating to trade talks with the US.
The papers were brandished by Jeremy Corbyn at a Labour campaign press conference as proof the Conservatives were preparing to open up the NHS to US pharmaceutical companies.
It subsequently emerged that they had appeared online some time before but had attracted little attention until they featured in the campaign.
Reddit, the internet discussion site where they appeared, subsequently said they had been linked to a previous Russian disinformation campaign.
Mr Raab said: “On the basis of extensive analysis, the Government has concluded that it is almost certain that Russian actors sought to interfere in the 2019 general election through the online amplification of illicitly acquired and leaked Government documents.”
Mr Raab’s statement came as the newly formed parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee announced it would release the long-awaited report into Russian interference in UK politics drawn up by its predecessor committee before the last election before Parliament breaks next week for the summer.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman dismissed as “nonsense” suggestions that the timing of his intervention was intended to pre-empt that report.
A Labour spokesman said: “We condemn any attempt by Russia, or any foreign power, to interfere in our country’s democratic processes.
“Labour stands ready to work cross-party to protect our nation’s security.”