Minister refuses to deny whether Russian spies 'stole' Oxford vaccine blueprint

11 October 2021, 07:31 | Updated: 11 October 2021, 18:05

A minister has refused to confirm whether Russian spies stole the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine.
A minister has refused to confirm whether Russian spies stole the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine. Picture: Alamy

By Will Taylor

A minister has refused to confirm whether Russian spies "stole" the British-made Covid-19 vaccine to create its own jab.

Home Office minister Damian Hinds would not be drawn on allegations that the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine's design was used to create Russia's Sputnik V jab, instead saying more generally that "state activity" was involved in "industrial espionage".

His comments come after a report by the Sun newspaper which suggests "security services" sources have evidence that Russian intelligence agents had stolen the Oxford vaccine design.

Downing Street has said accusations of intellectual property theft and cyberattacks were taken "extremely seriously".

However a spokesman for the manufacturer of the Sputnik V vaccine dismissed the claim that it stole the design as "fake news and a blatant lie".

On Monday, Mr Hinds told LBC: "We live in world, I am afraid, where there is state activity seeking to engage in industrial espionage and economic espionage, there are cyber attacks that happen and so on.

"I won't comment on the specific case that you mention because that wouldn't be right to do in detail, but it would be fair to say, correct to say, that we face threats of this type that are different, they are more sophisticated, they are more extensive than they ever have been before.

"The face of espionage, the face of spying, is very different from when you and I were growing up and we need to constantly upgrade our capability. These are very serious matters."

Conservative MP Bob Seely, a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, told the Sun that the UK needs to "get serious about Russian and Chinese espionage".

The Isle of Wight MP said: "Whether it is stealing the design for AstraZeneca or blackmailing us over energy by these authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, we need to get wise to them."

However the Russian Direct Investment Fund denied the design for Sputnik V was stolen.

In a statement, it said that unlike the AstraZeneca vaccine - which used a chimpanzee adenoviral vector - Sputnik V was based on a human vector.

"UK media reports that Russia's Sputnik V was allegedly based on research from the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine is another fake news and blatant lie based on anonymous sources," the statement said.

"The story, originated by The Sun tabloid, is pushed by those opposing the success of one of the world's most effective and safe vaccines against Covid-19 and we find such attacks highly unethical as they undermine the global vaccination effort.

"They also make absolutely no sense scientifically as Sputnik V and AstraZeneca use different platforms."

Last year, UK security services had accused Russian spies of trying to steal details of coronavirus vaccine research being carried out by the UK, US and Canada.

In 2020, then-foreign secretary Dominic Raab condemned a "shabby" disinformation campaign by Russia, which sought to discredit the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.

The campaign suggested the vaccine could turn people into monkeys because it uses a chimpanzee virus as a vector - even though that is a common practice in vaccine development.

The campaign was allegedly targeted at countries where Russia wanted to sell its own Sputnik V vaccine, as well as at Western nations.

The Prime Minister's official spokesman refused to comment on the specific claims that "security services" sources have evidence that Russian agents had stolen the Oxford coronavirus vaccine design.

He added: "I've seen reports on this. We take any such accusations of intellectual property theft and cyberattacks extremely seriously, and we've called out attempts in the past.

"But as you would expect, I'm not going to comment on matters on the intelligence front."