More than 40 organizations have been targeted in a global campaign focused on the COVID-19 vaccine cold chain infrastructure, which handles the distribution of vaccines and their storage at the required temperatures.
Following an initial report in December 2020, IBM Security X-Force now reveals that the number of affected organizations is higher compared to the previous assessment. A total of 44 organizations in 14 countries were targeted.
Operating in Europe, North America, South America, Africa, and Asia, the targeted entities are key organizations involved in the transportation, warehousing, storage, and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.
The attacks involved the use of spear-phishing emails impersonating an executive from Chinese biomedical company Haier Biomedical. According to IBM, which has identified 50 files associated with the attacks, the threat actor has exceptional knowledge of the cold chain.
“While our previous reporting featured direct targeting of supranational organizations, the energy and IT sectors across six nations, we believe this expansion to be consistent with the established attack pattern, and the campaign remains a deliberate and calculated threat,” IBM says.
In early September 2020, before any COVID-19 vaccine variant was approved, the threat actor started sending spear-phishing emails to pre-position themselves in the emerging infrastructure. The emails requested quotes regarding the Cold Chain Equipment Optimization Platform (CCEOP) program and referenced specific Haier Biomedical products used for the storage and transportation of vaccines.
The attacks employed HTML files that referenced solar panel manufacturers and organizations in petrochemical production.
The attackers targeted at least eight unique organizations within the aviation, automotive, maritime, and transport services sectors, as well as companies in biomedical research, medical manufacturing, pharmaceuticals and hygiene services. Furthermore, six organizations in the web-hosting services, software development, IT operations and outsourcing, and online platform provisioning were hit.
According to IBM, the activity also targeted government organizations (involved in the import/export of special goods, transport, and public health), along with entities in the refrigeration and metal manufacturing.
IBM’s security researchers believe that the attackers were looking to infiltrate the COVID-19 vaccine cold chain for espionage purposes, including insight into national Advance Market Commitment (AMC) negotiations, information on distribution timetables, collection or duplication of electronic documents, and technical requirements surrounding warehousing.
“While clear attribution remains presently unavailable, the rise of ‘vaccine nationalism’ and increased global competition surrounding access to vaccines suggests the higher likelihood of a nation-state operation,” IBM notes.