FBI: Hackers linked to Chinese government may be trying to steal US coronavirus vaccine research

As scientists around the world race to develop a coronavirus vaccine, U.S. authorities are warning American organizations about hackers linked to the Chinese government trying to steal their COVID-19 research.

The FBI said Wednesday it is investigating “the targeting and compromise of U.S. organizations conducting COVID-19-related research by (People’s Republic of China)-affiliated cyber actors and non-traditional collectors.”

The joint statement was issued with the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), which operates under the Department of Homeland Security.

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Officials said cyber actors have been observed attempting to “illicitly obtain valuable intellectual property” as well as public health data related to vaccines, treatments and testing from organizations conducting COVID-19-related research.

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

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American officials have long accused China of stealing trade secrets and valuable medical technology from U.S. corporations to develop their economy, allegations Beijing denies.

China was once the center of the outbreak, first detected in the city of Wuhan in late December. There has also been skepticism about the accuracy of China’s COVID-19 figures throughout the crisis, fueled by official efforts to quash bad news in the early days and a general distrust of the government.

"We have full expectation that China will do everything in their power to obtain any viable research that we are conducting here in the U.S.," Bill Evanina, the director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, told NPR. "That will be in line with their capabilities and intent the last decade plus, and we are expecting them to continue to do so."

U.S. authorities urged all organizations researching the virus to increase their cybersecurity “to prevent surreptitious review or theft of COVID-19-related material.”

Officials also advised organizations to assume that attention related to COVID-19 research will lead to an increase in cyber activity, and recommended improving credential requirements as well as requiring multi-factor authentication — among other security measures.

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This story was reported from Cincinnati. The Associated Press contributed.