The race to provide a Covid-19 vaccine has taken a sinister turn, amid reports that state-sponsored hackers from Russia and North Korea have tried to disrupt research in the West.

Microsoft said it detected three attacks from cyber crime groups (two from North Korea and one from Russia) attempting to steal information from western researchers and disrupt their vaccine development.

A worldwide race is currently ongoing to develop and roll out the first – or most conclusive – Covid-19 vaccine. Any country that manages this first will not just get a bumper financial bonus, but also the credibility at home and abroad for having done so.

However, Microsoft has accused North Korea and Russia of a race to the bottom; trying to steal or disrupt third party research to give themselves a head-start, rather than focus entirely on vaccine development.

According to Microsoft, two different types of hack had been detected at seven pharmaceutical companies working on a vaccine. The first was a brute force attack, where hackers tried to gain access to systems by simply trying millions of different passwords. This, it said, came from the ‘Fancy Bear’ group working out of Russia. The second hack involved cyber criminals trying to pass themselves off as members of the World Health Organisation. The origin of this hack, Microsoft claimed, was North Korea.

Sites across the world were said to be targeted, including the UK, USA, Canada, India, South Korea and France.

Microsoft’s allegations echo those made earlier by the UK government, which said Russian hackers were trying to disrupt vaccine research on these shores – a claim that Russia strongly denied.

In a blog post announcing the hacks it detected, Microsoft called on lawmakers around the world to ensure that scientists working on a vaccine would be protected from outside interference.

It said: “Microsoft is calling on the world’s leaders to affirm that international law protects health care facilities and to take action to enforce the law. We believe the law should be enforced not just when attacks originate from government agencies but also when they originate from criminal groups that governments enable to operate – or even facilitate – within their borders.

“This is criminal activity that cannot be tolerated.”