US says Chinese ‘cyber actors’ are stealing coronavirus research

WASHINGTON: China-linked hackers are breaking into American organsations 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 organisations 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 organisations have repeatedly sounded the alarm over the targeting of public health and pharmaceutical organisations.

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 jeopardise 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.