US authorities warned healthcare and scientific researchers on Wednesday that Chinese-backed hackers were attempting to steal research and intellectual property related to treatments and vaccines for Covid-19.
Organizations researching the disease were warned of “likely targeting and network compromise by the People’s Republic of China,” a statement from the FBI and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency said.
“These actors have been observed attempting to identify and illicitly obtain valuable intellectual property and public health data related to vaccines, treatments, and testing from networks and personnel affiliated with COVID-19-related research,” they said.
“China’s efforts to target these sectors pose a significant threat to our nations response to COVID-19,” they said.
The two organizations gave no evidence or examples of their allegation against Beijing.
But they urged “all organizations conducting research in these areas to maintain dedicated cybersecurity and insider threat practices to prevent surreptitious review or theft of COVID-19-related material.”
On Monday US media reported that the FBI was poised to release the warning about vaccine-research hacking.
Asked about the coming report, President Donald Trump replied: “What else is new with China? What else is new? Tell me. I’m not happy with China.”
“We’re watching it very closely,” he added.
In Beijing on Monday, Foreign Affairs ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian rejected the allegation, saying China firmly opposes all cyber attacks.
“We are leading the world in COVID-19 treatment and vaccine research. It is immoral to target China with rumors and slanders in the absence of any evidence,” Zhao said.
The warning comes as dozens of companies, institutes and countries around the world are racing to develop vaccines to halt the spread of the coronavirus, which has killed at least 292,000 worldwide.
Many more groups are researching treatments for infected patients. Currently there is no proven treatment.
The warning adds to a series of alerts and reports accusing government-backed hackers in Iran, North Korea, Russia and China of malicious activity related to the coronavirus pandemic, from pumping out false news to targeting workers and scientists.
Last week in a joint message Britain and the United States warned of a rise in cyber attacks against health professionals involved in the coronavirus response by organised criminals “often linked with other state actors.”
Britain’s National Cyber Security Centre and the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency said they had detected large-scale “password spraying” tactics — hackers trying to access accounts through commonly used passwords — aimed at healthcare bodies and medical research organizations.
Reporting the expected FBI warning on Monday, The New York Times said it could be a prelude to officially sanctioned counterattacks by US agencies involved in cyber warfare, including the Pentagon’s Cyber Command and the National Security Agency.