Chinese, Iranian hackers are trying to sabotage US vaccine efforts, FBI warns

Hackers backed by the governments of Iran and China are aggressively targeting U.S. firms and institutions that are working to find a vaccine to slow the coronavirus, according to a warning issued Wednesday by the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security.

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The ongoing cyberattacks have sought to steal information or sabotage research efforts at a wide range of American universities, and pharmaceutical and health-care firms since at least Jan. 3, U.S. officials said, according to a report by The Wall Street Journal.

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A similar federal alert was issued just earlier this month.

The FBI and the Cyber-security and Infrastructure Security Agency plan to release more details about the threat in the coming days and in the interim have asked organizations to report any suspicious activity.

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A joint statement says China’s efforts pose a “significant threat” to the health care, pharmaceutical and research sectors.

U.S. authorities have for a long time accused China of hacking to steal academic and economic data to bolster its economy. The latest warning comes amid increased tensions between the two governments over the origins of the pandemic and China’s initial response.

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“China’s long history of bad behavior in cyberspace is well documented, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone they are going after the critical organizations involved in the nation’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Christopher Krebs, director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.

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Officials say the nations carrying out cyberthefts and other attacks are seeking a competitive advantage during the pandemic.

More than a dozen countries have redeployed military and intelligence hackers to glean whatever they can about other nations’ virus responses, The New York Times reported earlier this week.

Even U.S. allies like South Korea and nations that do not typically stand out for their cyber abilities, like Vietnam, have suddenly redirected their state-run hackers to focus on virus-related information, according to private security firms.

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The warning said China is seeking “valuable intellectual property and public health data through illicit means related to vaccines, treatments and testing.”

The warning comes amid the Trump administration’s growing efforts to blame China for starting the pandemic, then withholding information that would have helped the United States prepare for it.

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Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed this month that there was “enormous evidence” that the virus had come from a Chinese lab before backing off to say it had come from the “vicinity” of the lab in Wuhan. U.S. intelligence agencies say they have reached no conclusion on the issue, but public evidence points to a link between the outbreak’s origins at a market in Wuhan and China’s illegal wildlife trafficking.

— Information provided by The Associated Press and The New York Times was used to supplement this report.