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Russia accused of vaccine hacking as India locks down 125 million

Russia was accused Thursday of trying to steal coronavirus vaccine research as the pandemic surged across the world and more than 125 million people in India were put under a new lockdown.

The virus has killed more than 584,000 people, infected nearly 13.6 million and crippled the global economy since emerging late last year, and the world’s hopes have turned to a vaccine to end the onslaught.

In the latest positive sign, British media reported on Thursday that an Oxford University trial had shown its prototype vaccine generated an immune response against the virus.

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%+) that APT29 are part of the Russian Intelligence Services” and its targeting of researchers was “highly likely (80-90%)” to “collect information on COVID-19 vaccine research”.

It added that the United States and Canada, whose labs were also targeted, backed the agency’s assessment.

Moscow denied any involvement, with Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov saying: “Russia has nothing to do with these attempts.”

The dispute came as the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution stressing the importance of “equitable and unhindered access” to diagnostics, treatments and vaccines — and that any vaccine should be considered a “global public good”.

– ‘Horrible experience’ –

The virus has been running rampant through the United States and Latin America, and the Red Cross has warned that South Asia is fast becoming the next epicentre.

“While the world’s attention has been focused on the unfolding crisis in the United States and South America, a concurrent human tragedy is fast emerging in South Asia,” said John Fleming, Asia-Pacific head of health for the organisation.

India is on course to hit one million cases in the coming days and the 125 million people in the impoverished Bihar state, neighbouring 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, the capital of Bihar, where all schools, clubs, temples and non-essential businesses were ordered closed.

– ‘Cannot heal the pain’ –

Governments in many 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 honoured its more than 28,000 virus dead at a solemn state ceremony joined by bereaved families and top EU and World Health Organization figures on Thursday.

“This act cannot heal the pain felt by so many families at not being at the side of their loved ones in their final hours,” Spain’s King Felipe VI told the ceremony.

“But what it can do is pay tribute to their lives, to their contribution to our society, to their memories.”

Elsewhere in Europe, Germany’s federal and regional governments agreed on tougher, more localised lockdowns to contain fresh outbreaks.

France meanwhile said it will make mask-wearing compulsory in indoor public spaces from next week after an uptick in infections.

– ‘Stop this nonsense’ –

The United States has recorded by far the most deaths and infections in the pandemic, setting a record on Wednesday with more than 67,000 new cases in 24 hours.

And the country’s outbreak is showing no sign of slowing down, with the latest research indicating its total number of deaths will pass 150,000 by next month.

US President Donald Trump fired his campaign manager for November’s election late Wednesday after his popularity plummeted over his response to the crisis.

Trump has repeatedly attempted to discredit the country’s top infectious diseases expert, Anthony Fauci, who has called for an end to the bickering.

“We’ve got to almost reset this and say, ‘Okay, let’s stop this nonsense’,” Fauci told The Atlantic magazine.

Deaths in Latin America have topped 150,000, making it the world’s second-hardest-hit region after Europe.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has announced a “radical quarantine” in the capital Caracas and neighbouring Miranda state following an alarming burst of cases.

In a rare positive sign, China reported its economy bounced back with a better-than-forecast 3.2 percent expansion in the second quarter. But the news was unable to lift the gloom in stock markets.

In South Africa, the continent’s hardest-hit country, paramedicMuller said bodies were “piling up” on the floor of two coronavirus-designated hospitals in the Eastern Cape city of Port Elizabeth.

“My guys are emotionally wrecked… they are literally taking bodies off beds to clear space for new patients,” he told AFP.