In November 2020, hackers gained access to a server used by the European Medicines Agency (EMA), the drug and vaccine regulator in the European Union, and stole data on the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine candidate. Last week, the EMA announced that the hackers had publicly released the documentation on hacking forums, but a new alert warns that the documentation was manipulated prior to release.
The stolen data included information submitted the EMA by the pharma and biotechnology firms as part of approval and regulatory process for their BNT162b2 COVID-19 vaccine candidate. The data published n hacking forums and dark web sites included Word documents, PDF files, PowerPoint presentations, and screenshots of emails.
“Some of the correspondence has been manipulated by the perpetrators prior to publication in a way which could undermine trust in vaccines,” said the Netherlands-based agency in its latest update on the hacking incident. “We have seen that some of the correspondence has been published not in its integrity and original form and, or with, comments or additions by the perpetrators.”
While the hackers responsible for the attack have yet to be identified, the manipulation of the data prior to publication hints that the breach may be part of a state-sponsored attack. The operation was clearly well resourced, and the leaking of data to undermine trust in one of the leading COVID-19 vaccines, has the hallmarks of disinformation campaigns commonly conducted by certain foreign governments.
In this case, the alteration of the data prior to publication could have occurred to cause harm to Pfizer, BioNTech, and/or the EMA, but could also help to fuel conspiracy theories and increase public distrust in vaccines, which has potential to cause harm to Europeans and others considering having the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.
At least one of the individuals who published the manipulated vaccine data made the reason for publishing clear. Links to the stolen and manipulated data were posted with the title “Astonishing fraud! Evil Pfffizer! Fake vaccines!” with the comments stating “Evidences of the BIG DATA SCAM of Pfizer’s vaccines.”