Organisations working on Covid vaccine research were one of the main targets of cyber attacks dealt with by UK computer security experts last year.
The National Cyber Security Centre says it handled a record 777 incidents between August 2020 and September 2021.
Its annual review said protecting the health sector became an urgent priority over the period.
The NCSC – part of GCHQ – said one in five incidents were aimed at organisations with links to health.
In one case, it helped the University of Oxford, where the AstraZeneca vaccine was developed, to protect itself against an incident which had the potential to cause significant disruption to the UK’s pandemic response.
According to the NCSC, the growth in reported incidents – from 723 the previous year – was due to it working to proactively identify cyber threats.
But it also said that it had to respond to a surge in incidents, particularly ransomware. The attack, where users are locked out of their computer systems until they pay a fee, has become a growing concern, the NCSC said.
The NCSC said in the last year the University of Oxford’s Covid vaccine researchers also faced an attempted attack involving ransonware.
According to the review, the NCSC received more than 5.9 million reports of malicious content from the public. This led to more than 53,000 scams and 96,500 URLs being taken down.
NCSC chief executive Lindy Cameron said she was “proud” of the way her staff responded to what has been “another hugely challenging year for the country as we all continue to navigate our way through the pandemic”.
Speaking at the Chatham House Cyber conference in October, she had warned criminals and state-backed groups would continue to use the pandemic as a vehicle for a cyber attack – whether it be to target information around vaccines or by stoking fears to carry out scams.