Britain’s intelligence agencies are working urgently to prevent hackers from hostile states, including China, trying to steal the secrets of a potential coronavirus vaccine, the head of GCHQ has said.
Giving a rare interview to the Cheltenham science festival, the director general, Jeremy Fleming, said hackers – including those from hostile states – were targeting the UK’s health infrastructure and some of its world-leading research labs, often by using simple techniques.
“We do know that, whether it’s states or criminals, they are going after things which are sensitive to us,” Fleming said. “So, it’s a high priority for us to protect the health sector, particularly the race to acquire a vaccine.”
He said hackers were often “looking for pretty basic vulnerabilities” such as “lures to get people to click on the wrong thing … where people aren’t backing up properly, or where they’ve got basic passwords and so on.”
The chief of the signals intelligence agency did not directly name China or any other country as being behind the cyber-attacks on the NHS and British research labs, but sources indicated that Beijing was often believed to be involved.
Elsewhere in the interview, which was prerecorded three weeks earlier, Fleming described China as in part “an intelligence adversary” and said the UK had to navigate a complex relationship with Beijing, made more acute by the pandemic crisis.
“For the UK, we see China as an intelligence adversary, we see them as an economic partner, we work with them in some areas, we compete with them in others, and in still others, we call out their behaviours when we don’t think they align with what we expect to see or with our values,” the spy chief added.
Britain’s intelligence agencies have been pressing for a reassessment of the UK’s relationship with Beijing, arguing that Britain needs to reduce its dependence on Chinese technology and medical supplies – and pressing for a more realistic appreciation of the intelligence threat.
Others, however, have gone further – claiming that coronavirus may have leaked from a Chinese high security disease research lab in Wuhan, and in contrast to the prevailing research even suggested that the disease may be manmade.
Former MI6 chief Sir Richard Dearlove, who was in charge of the intelligence agency in the run up to the Iraq war, told the Daily Telegraph on Wednesday that he had seen “very important” research suggesting that there were “inserted sections” on the structures that bind the Covid 19 strain onto human cells.
The paper by Professor Angus Dalgleish, of St George’s Hospital at the University of London, also a former Ukip election candidate, and Norwegian virologist Birger Sorensen goes against the prevailing scientific and security opinion, which says the virus emerged from horseshoe bats and was passed on to humans via an intermediate animal, such as a pangolin.
Whitehall sources reacted with dismay to Dearlove’s intervention, the latest in a long campaign of briefing aimed at justifying a lab leak theory pushed by US President Donald Trump. They reiterated they saw no evidence to justify the former MI6’s bosses claim.
Last month, Andrew Parker, the head of MI5 until April, said that of the origins of the coronavirus: “I’m just not aware of any evidence that it is anything other than what people think it is: It came via markets. There are all sorts of hypotheses around, but I just think it is not useful to speculate, worry about all that.”