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China has been caught trying to hack information on Wuhan coronavirus research in the U.S.



President Donald Trump is preparing to accuse Chinese Communist Party-backed hackers and spies of attempting to steal U.S. research into treatments and vaccines for the coronavirus, according to multiple reports.


This is the height of irony, given the Wuhan coronavirus escaped while China was trying to prove that it was equally capable as the U.S. in being able to develop preventative vaccines for novel viruses that threaten world health.


The public warning about China’s efforts to take advantage of the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic is expected to come from the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security in the coming days, according to sources cited by the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.


The draft language states that malevolent Chinese actors are targeting “valuable intellectual property and public health data through illicit means related to vaccines, treatments, and testing.” The United States is poised to point a finger at both Chinese cyberattacks as well as efforts by “nontraditional actors” such as Chinese operatives who might infiltrate U.S. labs or university research facilities to steal key coronavirus data.


The move to put the Chinese government-endorsed cyber thieves on notice is reportedly part of a larger effort being carried out by U.S. Cyber Command and the National Security Agency.


Last week, a joint alert from the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and the United Kingdom’s National Cyber Security Centre warned that “advanced persistent threat groups are exploiting the Coronavirus Disease 2019 pandemic as part of their cyber operations” without naming the specific country or countries backing these groups.


The U.S.-U.K. warning noted that hackers were targeting “healthcare bodies pharmaceutical companies, academia, medical research organizations, and local governments” and were attempting to obtain “intelligence on national and international healthcare policy, or acquire sensitive data on COVID-19-related research.”


The two governments warned that organizations involved in Wuhan coronavirus research are “attractive targets” for foreign hackers “looking to obtain information for their domestic research efforts into COVID-19-related medicine.”


The Office of the Director of National Intelligence announced last week its intent to “strengthen the intelligence community’s cyber posture” by combining four previously separate ODNI cyber organizations into one focused operation, dubbed “the IC Cyber Executive.”

Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Demers warned last month of China’s efforts to hack into U.S. firms and institutions attempting to acquire Wuhan coronavirus vaccine research. (Photo Ed Gates, AFP)

The head of the Justice Department’s China Initiative, John Demers, strongly hinted last month that China-backed hackers were looking to steal U.S. coronavirus research.


Demers, the assistant attorney general for national security, issued stark warnings about China’s long history of economic espionage and cyberattacks during a lengthy online discussion, and the top DOJ official was pressed on whether China is targeting U.S. hospitals and research labs to steal information that doctors and scientists are learning about the coronavirus.


He said, “It’s certainly the logical conclusion of everything I’ve said — there is nothing more valuable today than biomedical research relating to vaccines or treatments for the coronavirus.” He noted, “It would be beyond absurd to think that, well, the Chinese, they care about all this other stuff, but this they’re gonna lay off.”


In consideration of the threat of China trying to steal coronavirus research, Demers added, “We are very attuned to increased cyber intrusions into medical centers, research centers, universities — anybody that is doing research in this area, yes.”


The comments by Demers illuminated April warnings by FBI Deputy Assistant Director Tonya Ugoretz, who confirmed that both cybercriminals and foreign government hackers had targeted the U.S. in a variety of ways, including attempts to steal information related to the U.S. response to the COVID-19 virus and related research. Ugoretz did not reveal which countries were going after U.S. research at the time.


“When we’re talking about threat actors, we’re talking about cybercriminals, those who are looking to conduct cyber intrusions, theft of information, a variety of cybercrimes, usually for personal profit,” she said. “Countries have a very high desire for information about how other countries are responding but also about things like research on vaccines and what’s happening in the U.S. healthcare sector and our research institutes.


"So, we have certainly seen reconnaissance activity and some intrusions into some of those institutions, especially those that have publicly identified themselves as working on COVID-related research.”


The U.S. intelligence community reportedly believes the Chinese Communist Party downplayed the severity of the initial coronavirus outbreak and that China continues to mislead about the infection rate and death toll inside the country. Beijing has denied orchestrating a cover-up of its coronavirus response.

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