Kaspersky reveals Lazarus APT group targets vaccine research

Sometime in 2020, Kaspersky researchers identified two APT (advanced persistent threat) incidents that targeted entities related to COVID-19 research. Experts from the cybersecurity solutions company assessed — with high confidence — that the activities can be attributed to the infamous Lazarus group.

As Kaspersky continues to track the Lazarus group’s ongoing campaigns targeting various industries, the researchers discovered that just a couple of months ago, the actor figured in two incidents involving COVID-19-related entities.

The first one was an attack against a Ministry of Health body. Two Windows servers in the organization were compromised with sophisticated malware on Oct. 27, 2020. The malware used is known by Kaspersky, named “wAgent.” Closer analysis has shown that the wAgent malware used against a ministry of health has the same infection scheme as the malware Lazarus group previously used in attacks on cryptocurrency businesses.

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The second incident involved a pharmaceutical company. According to Kaspersky telemetry, the company was breached on Sept. 25, 2020. This company is developing a COVID-19 vaccine and is also authorized to produce and distribute it. This time, the attacker deployed the Bookcode malware, previously reported by a security vendor to be connected to Lazarus, in a supply chain attack through a South Korean software company. Kaspersky researchers also witnessed the Lazarus group carry out spear-phishing or strategically compromise websites in order to deliver Bookcode malware in the past.

Both wAgent and Bookcode malware, used in both attacks, have similar functionalities, such as a full-featured backdoor. After deploying the final payload, the malware operator can control a victim’s machine in nearly any manner they wish.

“These two incidents reveal Lazarus group’s interest in intelligence related to COVID-19. While the group is mostly known for its financial activities, it is a good reminder that it can go after strategic research as well. We believe that all entities currently involved in activities such as vaccine research or crisis handling should be on high alert for cyberattacks,” said Seongsu Park, security expert at Kaspersky.

Kaspersky products detect the wAgent malware as HEUR:Trojan.Win32.Manuscrypt.gen and Trojan.Win64.Manuscrypt.bx.

The Bookcode malware is detected as Trojan.Win64.Manuscrypt.ce.

To stay safe from sophisticated threats, Kaspersky recommends taking the following security measures:

  • Provide your security operations center (SOC) team with access to the latest threat intelligence (TI). The Kaspersky Threat Intelligence Portal grants access to the company’s TI, providing cyberattack data and insights gathered by Kaspersky for more than 20 years. Free access to its curated features that allow users to check files, URLs, and IP addresses is available here.
  • Provide your staff with basic cybersecurity hygiene training, as many targeted attacks start with phishing or other social engineering techniques.
  • Organizations that would like to conduct their own investigations will benefit from Kaspersky Threat Attribution Engine. It matches a discovered malicious code against malware databases, and, based on the code similarities, attributes it to previously revealed APT campaigns.
  • For endpoint level detection, investigation, and timely remediation of incidents, implement EDR solutions such as Kaspersky Endpoint Detection and Response.
  • In addition to adopting essential endpoint protection, implement a corporate-grade security solution that detects advanced threats on the network level at an early stage, such as the Kaspersky Anti Targeted Attack Platform.