US Accuses China-Linked Hackers of Stealing Coronavirus Research

By Reuters 14 May 2020

China-linked hackers are breaking into US organizations carrying out research into COVID-19, US officials said on Wednesday, warning both scientists and public health officials to be on the lookout for cyber theft.

In a joint statement, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security said the FBI was investigating digital break-ins at US organizations by China-linked “cyber actors” that it had monitored “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 statement offered no further details on the identities of the targets or the hackers. The Chinese Embassy in Washington condemned the allegations as “lies.”

“The FBI issued a warning based on presumption of guilt and without any evidence,” the embassy said in a written statement, adding the US accusation “undercuts the ongoing international cooperation against the pandemic.”

Coronavirus-related research and data have emerged as a key intelligence priority for hackers of all stripes and Western intelligence organizations have repeatedly sounded the alarm over the targeting of public health and pharmaceutical organizations.

In a separate statement issued earlier on Wednesday, the head of New Zealand’s signals intelligence agency said it condemned any attempt to target COVID response-related infrastructure.

“We call upon all cyber actors to refrain from activity that may jeopardize national or international responses to the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Andrew Hampton, the director-general of New Zealand’s Government Communications Security Bureau.

Last week Reuters reported that Iran-linked cyberspies had targeted staff at US drugmaker Gilead Sciences Inc., whose antiviral drug remdesivir is the only treatment so far proven to help COVID-19 patients.

In March and April, Reuters reported on advanced hackers’ attempts to break into the World Health Organization as the pandemic spread across the globe.

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