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July 2 2020
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U.S. Accuses China of Hacking Coronavirus Research, Undermining Vaccine Development
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By Paul D. Shinkman, Senior Writer, National Security
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May 13, 2020, at 12:49 p.m.
U.S. News & World Report

U.S. Accuses China of Hacking Virus Research

Dr. Nita Patel, Director of Antibody discovery and Vaccine development, lifts a vial with a potential coronavirus, COVID-19, vaccine at Novavax labs in Rockville, Maryland on March 20, 2020, one of the labs developing a vaccine for the coronavirus, COVID-19. (Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP) (Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)

In response to the attempted attack, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency said in their public announcement, “China’s efforts to target these sectors pose a significant threat to our nation’s response to COVID-19.”(ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

THE FEDERAL government's top agencies for cybersecurity on Wednesday accused China of waging a hacking campaign designed to undermine the U.S. response to the coronavirus, a rare public acknowledgement of a rival's attempted attacks that comes amid the global race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine.

The "public service announcement" from the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security's Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, or CISA, is designed to warn American organizations researching the effects of the virus against "likely targeting and network compromise by the People's Republic of China," according to a statement from the agencies. Any institution that believes it may have been subject to a cyberattack should contact their local FBI field office, they said, "in order to help protect these critical response efforts."

"China's efforts to target these sectors pose a significant threat to our nation's response to COVID-19," the FBI and CISA said. "This announcement is intended to raise awareness for research institutions and the American public and provide resources and guidance for those who may be targeted."

Photos: The Global Coronavirus Outbreak

Biologist doctor Caroline Gutsmuth gives a phone call in medical biology laboratory who opened a coronavirus drive-thru testing site, in Neuilly-sur-Seine, near Paris, Monday, March 23, 2020. French President Emmanuel Macron urged employees to keep working in supermarkets, production sites and other businesses that need to keep running amid stringent restrictions of movement due to the rapid spreading of the new coronavirus in the country. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms. For some it can cause more severe illness, especially in older adults and people with existing health problems. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

The Chinese efforts – and similar efforts by countries like Iran – are likely designed to bolster their own work toward developing a vaccine rather than undermining the U.S., according to analysts speaking to U.S. News on the condition of anonymity, pointing to the leverage a country would yield after becoming the first to have made such a monumental breakthrough.

And it comes as the Trump administration increasingly criticizes China for its role in allowing the virus to spread and reportedly undermining subsequent attempts to mitigate it. The State Department on Friday claimed Beijing had successfully manipulated Twitter to proliferate a complex propaganda campaign designed to bolster its international image. The social media giant has questioned some of those claims.

China has previously rejected similar claims. Its embassy in Washington, D.C., did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Reports that China may have been attempting to hack into U.S. vaccine research have been circulating over the past few weeks. Trump was asked about it at the White House on Monday.

"So what else is new with China?" he said in a press briefing in the Rose Garden. "What else is new? Tell me. I'm not happy with China. They should've stopped this at the source. They could've stopped it right at the source. So now you're telling me they're hacking? So, I just say this, ... What else is new? We're watching it very closely."

Government agencies very rarely comment about ongoing campaigns within the realm of cybersecurity, citing the sophisticated and sometimes lengthy analysis required to identify the true source of an attack and fears that openly acknowledging an attack can alert adversaries to U.S. cyber capabilities. The U.S. has previously recognized broad Chinese hacking campaigns, such as in 2018 when a National Security Agency official said Beijing had violated a 2015 agreement designed to stop cyber espionage.

Wednesday's statement also points to the vulnerabilities of the sophisticated technology that could produce a vaccine more swiftly than ever before.

"While health technology tools are more powerful and impactful than ever before – possibly holding the keys to ending the COVID-19 pandemic – they offer more cyber attack surfaces and options for adversaries," Meg King, director of The Wilson Center's Science and Technology Innovation Program, said in an email. "Both nation-states and criminals seek this information for geopolitical advantage or financial gain, and the Department of Homeland Security's warning to the ...


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