U.S. Warns That Chinese Hackers Are Targeting Virus Research

(Bloomberg) -- Hackers working for the Chinese government are trying to steal valuable research on coronavirus vaccines and treatments from U.S. health care, pharmaceutical and research organizations, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security warned Wednesday.

“China’s efforts to target these sectors pose a significant threat to our nation’s response to Covid-19,” the Federal Bureau of Investigation and DHS’s Cybersecurity Infrastructure Security Agency said in a joint statement.

“The potential theft of this information jeopardizes the delivery of secure, effective and efficient treatment options,” the agencies said.

The announcement represents an escalation in U.S. efforts to combat Chinese espionage and cyber-attacks. It comes as President Donald Trump attempts to blame the Chinese government for not doing more to prevent the global spread of the coronavirus, which has killed more than 80,000 people in the U.S. and ravaged the economy.

The alert didn’t explain whether the alleged goal of the Chinese hackers was solely to steal data on coronavirus treatments in development or to interfere with U.S. efforts to create a vaccine by disrupting or disabling computer networks. The alert also didn’t say whether any hacking attacks have been successful.

China’s foreign ministry said it “deplores and firmly opposes such slanderous actions” in response to a question about the report at a Thursday news briefing in Beijing.

“China is a staunch champion of cybersecurity and one of the major victims of cyber attacks,” ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters. “Spreading rumors, smearing and scapegoating will not make the virus go away or end the pandemic.”

Race for Vaccines

Countries and companies are racing to develop vaccines and treatments for Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Those that succeed are likely to reap tremendous economic and political advantage.

“China has long engaged in the theft of biomedical research, and Covid-19 research is the field’s Holy Grail right now,” said John Demers, head of the Justice Department’s national security division.

“The geopolitical significance of being the first to develop a treatment or vaccine means the Chinese will try to use every tool -- both cyber intrusions and insiders -- to get it,” Demers said in a statement. The Justice Department could bring criminal charges against Chinese hackers targeting virus research if the evidence warrants such action.

Wednesday’s alert said the FBI “is investigating the targeting and compromise of U.S. organizations conducting Covid-19-related research by PRC-affiliated cyber actors and non-traditional collectors,” referring to the People’s Republic of China. “These actors have been observed attempting to identify and illicitly obtain valuable intellectual property (IP) and public health data related to vaccines, treatments and testing from networks and personnel affiliated with Covid-19-related research.”

The agencies said additional technical details on the threat will be released in the coming days.

‘Alternate Narrative’

The recent activity is partly driven by China’s desire to build “an alternate narrative” about the coronavirus in which “they are the international good guys in the virus battle,” said James Lewis, senior vice president and director of the technology policy program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, a think tank based in Washington.

In China’s desired narrative, the country would develop a vaccine, which would allow President Xi Jinping to demonstrate that China has “pulled ahead of the U.S. and can safely be the world leader,” Lewis said.

The U.S. and U.K. jointly announced this month that the two countries were investigating hacking incidents against pharmaceutical companies, medical groups and universities involved in research related to the coronavirus. They didn’t attribute the incidents to a specific country.

For decades, the U.S. has accused China of extensive economic espionage and intellectual property theft, including spying on pharmaceutical companies. This prompted a 2015 agreement between the U.S. and China prohibiting such theft for economic gain -- which the Trump administration has accused China of violating. China has denied it engages in such practices.

Beyond the hacking allegations, officials from the State Department and Justice Department have accused China of spreading disinformation about the pandemic to further its strategic goals.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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