The US, UK and Canada have accused Russia of trying to steal coronavirus vaccine research as the pandemic surges across the world, with Brazil surpassing 2 million confirmed cases and the US notching a new daily record.
The virus has killed more than 588,000 people, infected more than 13.7 million and crippled the global economy since emerging late last year, and world hopes have turned to a vaccine to end the onslaught.
In the latest positive sign, British media reported Thursday that an Oxford University trial had shown its prototype vaccine generated an immune response against Covid-19.
But hours later, the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre said a hacking group called APT29 had targeted British labs conducting vaccine research to “steal valuable intellectual property.”
The agency said it was “almost certain (95 per cent+) that APT29 are part of the Russian Intelligence Services” and its targeting of researchers was “highly likely (80-90 per cent)” to “collect information on Covid-19 vaccine research.”
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The US, UK and Canada all accused Russia in a joint security advisory.
Moscow denied any involvement, with Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov saying: “Russia has nothing to do with these attempts.”
The dispute came as ever-growing tolls in Brazil and the United States, the world’s two worst-hit countries, underscored the need for a vaccine.
Both passed bleak mileposts Thursday, with Brazil soaring past its 2 millionth infection and the US adding more than 68,000 cases in 24 hours, a new daily record.
Experts say the true case load in Brazil, home to some 209 million people, could be understated by as much as a factor of 10, and fatalities - officially over 76,000 - as much as two-fold.
Like the US, Latin America’s largest economy is led by a populist leader, Jair Bolsonaro, who has downplayed the virus and railed against restrictions.
Bolsonaro was himself diagnosed Covid-19 positive a week ago.
But despite the grim figures, his country remains behind the US, which has recorded by far the most deaths and infections in the pandemic, with 138,301 deaths out of a total 3,560,364 cases.
Florida is the country’s new epicentre, and is shaping up as a key battleground in a partisan-tinged national fight over reopening schools in the fall.
US President Donald Trump is pushing for schools to open, pinning his re-election hopes on declaring victory over the virus and jump-starting the economy.
Thursday also illustrated the partisan divide in the US over face masks.
Colorado governor Jared Polis issued a statewide order requiring anyone over the age of 10 to wear a mask in indoor public spaces.
But Keisha Lance Bottoms, the Democratic mayor of Atlanta, Georgia, who recently tested positive for Covid-19, was sued over her citywide mask mandate - by her state’s governor, Republican Brian Kemp.
“3104 Georgians have died and I and my family are amongst the 106k who have tested positive for Covid-19. Meanwhile, I have been sued by @GovKemp for a mask mandate,” she tweeted Thursday.
“A better use of tax payer money would be to expand testing and contact tracing.”
South Asia new epicentre?
While the virus runs rampant across the Americas, the Red Cross warned that South Asia is fast becoming the next global epicentre.
India will hit one million cases soon, and the 125 million people in impoverished Bihar state, which borders Nepal, started a new 15-day lockdown on Thursday.
“We have not faced such a situation in my life before, it is really a horrible experience,” housewife Radhika Singh said in Patna, capital of Bihar.
Governments in many other countries have been forced to reimpose restrictions as Covid-19 refuses to fade, including Spain, which has locked down a northeastern area as it fights more than 120 active outbreaks.
Spain honored its more than 28,000 virus dead on Thursday at a solemn state ceremony attended by bereaved families and top EU and World Health Organisation figures.
EU leaders are gearing up for their first in-person meeting in five months on Friday, where they will discuss a post-virus economic rescue plan.
Officials have drawn up proposals for a huge stimulus package, but a determined band of northern capitals -- led by the Netherlands -- are holding out against doling out cash to their southern neighbours without strict conditions attached.
Friday’s talks are expected to run into the weekend. Few are confident of a breakthrough.
In north Africa, Algeria is planning a law to protect health workers after an increase in “physical and verbal attacks” since the country’s outbreak began, as it registered another record number of daily cases.
On Monday, the director of a hospital around 125km (78 miles) southeast of the capital jumped out of a window to escape the angry family of a patient suspected to have died from the Covid-19 disease.