FBI Chief: Chinese, Russian Hackers Pose ‘Very, Very Real Threat’ to Vaccine Research

A researcher at Protein Sciences works in a lab, Thursday, March 12, 2020, in Meriden, Conn. The biotech company is currently researching a vaccine for COVID-19. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people …
AP File Photo/Jessica Hill

FBI Director Christopher Wray told a House panel Thursday that foreign hackers, particularly from China and Russia, are trying to steal U.S. coronavirus vaccine research and testing technology and engaging in efforts to disrupt the government’s response to the ongoing pandemic.

During a hearing on threats to America held by the House Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Xochitl Torres Small (D-NM) noted:

According to U.S. intelligence officials, Chinese and Russian hackers are using cyber tools to steal American biomedical research used for the development of a COVID-19 [coronavirus disease] vaccine. Officials have also expressed concern about the possibility of Chinese and Russian hackers damaging American efforts to develop a vaccine.

She went on to ask Wray, “What is the department doing to combat foreign hackers and to work with pharmaceutical and academic institutions to strengthen [its] cyber defense capabilities?”

“You’re correct that we are seeing efforts by our foreign adversaries to engage in cyber targeting of [coronavirus disease] vaccine research, testing technology, treatment technology, and efforts to disrupt our national response to the pandemic,” the FBI chief responded.

“This is a very, very real cyber threat that we’re contending with daily,” he later added.

Wray acknowledged that U.S. authorities recently accused some of “China’s most prolific cyber actors” of targeting COVID-19 (coronavirus disease) research.

Wray also said that counterparts in Britain have also attributed similar cybercriminal activity to Russian actors operating within their borders.

The FBI is engaged in a “very forward-leaning engagement and outreach” effort with companies, manufacturers, universities, and research centers to ensure they take appropriate measures “to harden their systems and prevent exfiltration of the information,” Wray said.

“I think we’ve been pretty successful in getting there before valuable information has been lost,” he added.

Wray indicated that Russian actors are disseminating disinformation on the virus and future vaccines to create distrust.

In a joint advisory issued in July, intelligence agencies from the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada accused state-backed hackers from Russia of targeting firms researching COVID-19.

Soon after, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) unsealed an indictment charging two Chinese nationals with hacking organizations researching the lethal and highly contagious virus.

Several countries, including Russia, China, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States, participate in the global race to develop a safe and effective vaccine.

Russia and China claim to have already discovered one, prompting criticism from health experts that they may have jumped the gun, and the vaccines may not be safe and effective.

There are no vaccines against any coronaviruses in humans. Nevertheless, Trump administration officials have said they are “cautiously optimistic” the U.S. will have one by the end of this year or early 2021.


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