Companies in the vital agriculture and water sectors cannot be too careful about cybersecurity. CyberX, a new Israeli cyber-industrial security firm, says it has discovered a new, large-scale “cyber-reconnaissance operation” targeting a broad range of targets in the Ukraine. PC microphones are remotely controlled, allowing operators to eavesdrop on sensitive conversations, in effect surreptitiously “bugging” its targets, which have included critical infrastructure, media, and scientific researchers. The operation seeks to capture a range of sensitive information, including audio recordings of conversations, screen shots, documents and passwords.

“Operation BugDrop,” as it has been dubbed, infects its victims using targeted email phishing attacks and malicious macros embedded in Microsoft Office attachments, CyberX said. It also uses clever social engineering to trick users into enabling macros if they aren’t already enabled. It avoids detection by common antivirus and sandboxing programs, and utilizes Dropbox for data exfiltration (the unauthorized copying, transfer or retrieval of data from a computer or server) because Dropbox traffic is typically not blocked or monitored by corporate firewalls.

“The types of targets, as well as the sophisticated malware coupled with targeted spearphishing attacks, indicates the hackers are probably working with the support of a nation-state—most likely Russia,” notes the Cipher Brief, an online publication focusing on global security. “The method used for injecting the malware, something known as Reflective DLL Injection, was a technique also leveraged by the BlackEnergy malware used in the 2015 Ukrainian power grid attack—a piece of malware also affiliated with the U.S. ‘Grizzly Steppe’ report on Russian hacking activities.” READ MORE

TERRORISM

Serious employee vetting vital as ISIS continues to decentralize: The need for serious employee vetting cannot be overstated. ISIS has been able to build a robust and redundant apparatus for conducting transnational terrorist attacks, a U.S. defense official told a Washington D.C radio station, and will likely continue to employ a less-centralized approach to attacks. The official said the approach is supported by slick online propaganda messages aimed at sympathizers. Because of currently high alert levels in Europe, another official noted, it is difficult for terrorists to operate in traditional cell structures. As a result, more “lone wolf” attacks are expected;  a key concern will be figuring out whether lone wolf plotters are legitimately working on their own, or whether ISIS had an indirect hand in their actions. READ MORE

PUBLIC HEALTH

Project studies potential sources of cantaloupe contamination: Although a handful of researchers have examined potential pathogen contamination of cantaloupe in the field, few have studied the melon in relation to potential pathogen transfer from and to contact surfaces throughout the food chain. Dr. Laura Strawn, an assistant professor of food science and produce safety Extension specialist at Virginia Tech, is leading a project to do just that with a focus on Salmonella and Listeria monocytogenes transfer. Cantaloupe growers opened their operations so researchers could observe harvest and field packing firsthand. Project goal is to develop best management practices to reduce potential pathogen transfer to and from surfaces. The project is funded by the Center for Produce Safety. READ MORE

One Health: A safe and effective MERS-CoV + rabies vaccine for humans and animals: Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) is viral respiratory illness that was recently recognized in humans. The disease is caused by the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV). Most MERS patients develop severe acute respiratory illness with symptoms of fever, cough and shortness of breath, and about three to four out of every 10 patients reported with MERS have died, according to the Centers for Disease Control website.

Now, a recent issue of the Journal of Virology (an American Society for Microbiology publication) reports that a research consortium from Thomas Jefferson University, the University of Maryland, and NIH’s Integrated Research Facility at Fort Derrick have developed a recombinant vaccine, BNSP333-S, that contains an inactivated rabies virus (RABV) with the MERS-CoV spike (S) protein expressed on its surface.

This is important news because currently there are no treatment options against MERS-CoV for humans or animals, and there are no large-scale clinical trials underway for therapies against MERS-CoV. Also, rabies in both wildlife and domestic animals continues to be a significant threat to human health throughout many of the same regions where cases of MERS-CoV have been reported. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), MERS is a zoonotic disease that is spread from animals to humans. So far, all cases of human MERS have been linked through travel to, or residence in, countries in and near the Arabian Peninsula. The majority of human cases have been attributed to person-to-person contact, but camels are likely to be a major reservoir host.

Mouse challenge studies by the group demonstrated that vaccinated mice were fully protected from the MERS-CoV challenge, with significantly lower MERS-CoV titers and MERS-CoV and mRNA levels in challenged mice than those in unvaccinated controls. Their data establish that an inactivated RABV-MERS S-based vaccine may be effective for use in animals and humans in areas where MERS-CoV is endemic.

Rabies virus-based vectors have been proven to be efficient dual vaccines against rabies and emergent infectious diseases such as Ebola virus. Their results indicate that this vaccine approach can prevent disease, and the RABV-based vaccine platform may be a valuable tool for timely vaccine development against emerging infectious diseases. As this publication demonstrates, inactivated rabies virus particles containing the MERS-CoV S1 protein are capable of inducing potent immune responses against both MERS-CoV and RABV. According to the researchers, “This novel vaccine is easy to produce and may be useful to protect target animals, such as camels, as well as humans, from deadly MERS-CoV and RABV infections.” READ MORE —Reported by Stephanie R. Ostrowski, DVM, MPVM, DACVPM, FANP