Vaccine cold chain 'vigilant’ for cyber attacks

4 December 2020

IBM has warned firms involved in the Covid-19 supply chain to be “vigilant and remain on high alert” after it uncovered a global phishing campaign which targeted key cold chain players. 

IBM said the “calculated operation” started in September 2020, spanned across six countries and targeted organisations associated with Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance’s Cold Chain Equipment Optimisation Platform (CCEOP) programme. 

The programme, which is aimed at strengthening vaccine supply chains, is currently accelerating efforts to distribute a Covid-19 vaccine.

According to the tech firm, the phishing emails appeared to originate from a business executive at Haier Biomedical, a Chinese firm currently acting as a qualified supplier of the CCEOP programme and one of the world’s only complete cold chain providers.

“Spear-phishing emails were sent to select executives in sales, procurement, information technology and finance positions, likely involved in company efforts to support a vaccine cold chain,” IBM explained.

“Disguised as this employee, the adversary sent phishing emails to organisations believed to be providers of material support to meet transportation needs within the Covid-19 cold chain. 

“We assess that the purpose of this Covid-19 phishing campaign may have been to harvest credentials, possibly to gain future unauthorised access to corporate networks and sensitive information relating to the Covid-19 vaccine distribution.”

The tech firm added that targets of the campaign included the European Commission’s directorate-general for taxation and customs union, as well as organisations within the energy, manufacturing, website creation and software and internet security solutions sectors. 

IBM said: “It’s unclear from our analysis if the Covid-19 phishing campaign was successful. However, the established role that Haier Biomedical currently plays in vaccine transport, and their likely role in Covid-19 vaccine distribution, increases the probability the intended targets may engage with the inbound emails without questioning the sender’s authenticity.”

Meanwhile, pharmaceutical firm Pfizer, which earlier this week received the UK’s first approval for vaccines, said it would be halving production of vaccines due to supply chain issues. 

The firm said it expects to produce globally up to 50m vaccine doses in 2020 and up to 1.3bn doses in 2021. The firm had initially estimated it would be able to produce 100m vaccines by the end of the year. 

A Pfizer spokesperson said there were “several factors” which impacted the estimated number of doses available in 2020. 

They said: “For one, scaling up a vaccine at this pace is unprecedented, and we have made significant progress as we have moved forwards in the unknown. Additionally, scale up of the raw material supply chain took longer than expected.”

The outcome of the clinical trial for the vaccine was also “somewhat later than the initial projection” but finished doses are currently being made at a “rapid pace”, they added. 

“We are confident in our ability to supply at a pace of approximately 1.3bn doses by the end of 2021,” Pfizer said.

Richard Wilding, professor of supply chain strategy at Cranfield School of Management, said while the news of the vaccine's approval is welcome, “there is still a significant challenge ahead in terms of the vaccination’s supply chain”.

He said: “The vaccination needs to be kept at -70C, which has required the development of ultra-cold boxes as this temperature range falls outside of the normal cold supply chain. These boxes also use dry ice, which will need to be replenished before more vaccinations can be moved through.

“In addition to the vaccine itself, the other elements of vaccination centres need to be coordinated to meet the demands; syringes, needles, PPE, waste removal, for example. These multiple supply chains will need to be well-choreographed to enable people to receive the vaccination.

“The scale of what is being attempted is huge; the vaccination will not instantly be available everywhere to everyone, but the Time to Volume will be helped with the additional approval of other vaccines, which already have support infrastructure in place and so are easier to manage.”

Malcom Harrison, group CEO, CIPS, said: “The distribution of a vaccine that must be maintained at extremely low temperatures, to tackle a worldwide pandemic, has to be one of the more difficult supply chain challenges experienced in a generation.

“Creating vaccines with such speed and agility is a phenomenal feat, so we need that same spirit of innovation to overcome the substantial logistical challenges we’re now faced with. This is complicated, and especially as different vaccines have different requirements in terms of the cold chain required. Difficult choices have to be made over specification, speed, investment and cost at every step of the way. But this is another example of how the supply chain profession can demonstrate its value to a wider society.”

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