An unusual number of virus attacks succeeded on a large scale in January, many of them wreaking havoc before antivirus vendors could respond, according to figures released last week.

Israel-based Commtouch Software, which makes spam and virus protection technology, said there were four "massive attacks" in January, out of 19 significant new email-borne attacks. Eight of the remainder were graded "low intensity" and seven were "medium intensity", the company said.

Speed has always been key to a virus's success, and more attacks are managing to slide in under antivirus companies' radar, with 40 percent of attacks peaking within eight hours. Speed corresponded to the scale of the attack: on average low-intensity attacks peaked in 27 hours, medium-intensity attacks took 17 hours and the most damaging attacks took as little as 5.5 hours to spread hundreds of millions of emails, according to Commtouch.

On average, the 21 leading antivirus engines took 8.12 hours to respond to a new attack – though the company didn't say how widely the engines varied from this average. Each engine 'missed' an average of 6.2 viruses, meaning the attack had peaked before a signature was available, Commtouch said.

The company, not coincidentally, makes software designed to reduce antivirus lag time.

One outbreak consisted of seven variants, the first launching around Christmas Day, with subsequent variants growing into a massive outbreak late in January.

The US was the physical origination point for only 43.18 percent of spam around the world in January, down from about 50 percent. China was number two, originating 12.89 percent of spam, with Korea, Germany and France accounting for another three to four percent each. topped the list of domains used as origination points, with others including,, and

Most spam – 52.46 percent – advertised pharmaceutical products, with consumer goods such as Rolex imitations making up 14.08 percent, and sexual enhancers and diets 13.38 percent.

Finance, software and porn ads made up similar proportions at 7.57 percent, 6.34 percent and a surprisingly low 5.28 percent respectively. Phishing emails made up just 0.88 percent of all spam messages.

Commtouch analysed more than two billion messages from more than 130 countries to arrive at the figures.

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