Ministers warn COVID-19 researchers anew of threat of foreign actors

OTTAWA — A trio of federal cabinet ministers is warning COVID-19 researchers to take additional precautions to protect their efforts from thieves and vandals.

The statement Monday says the federal government is concerned about "hostile actors" targeting pandemic-related research in this country and urges government scientists, academics and private-sector workers to double- and triple-check their security measures.

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Signed by Industry Minister Navdeep Bains, Health Minister Patty Hajdu and Public Safety Minister Bill Blair, the statement recommends strong cyber- and physical-security protocols.

"While the government remains committed to the principles of open science as an essential part of innovative and collaborative research, the global pandemic has prompted new, aggressive targeting of research," it says.

"Espionage and foreign interference activities by both human and cyber actors pose real threats to Canadian research integrity, intellectual property and business interests."

In mid-July, Canadian, British and U.S. security services said they believed hackers working for Russia's intelligence agency were trying to steal vaccine research.

The statement warns of threats to intellectual property and business interests as well as long-term economic competitiveness from espionage and foreign interference.

Canadian governments have invested heavily in scientific research, said John Power, a spokesman for Bains, in a followup email. Collaborations with researchers and scholars from other countries are vital to progress, he added.

"However, we need to collaborate with our eyes wide open and make sure that Canadians continue to benefit from our significant investments in science."

One collaboration that didn't pay off was a joint venture with Chinese researchers on developing a COVID-19 vaccine. That partnership was scuppered when Chinese authorities refused to allow doses of the experimental vaccine to be shipped to Canada for clinical trials.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 14, 2020.

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