U.S. Officials: Beware Of China And Others Trying To Steal COVID-19 Research

Ted S. Warren, AP

A pharmacist gives Jennifer Haller a shot in the first-stage safety clinical trial of a potential vaccine for COVID-19 on March 16 at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute in Seattle. U.S. officials say they are already seeing efforts by foreign actors to steal information from U.S. firms working on a vaccine and treatments for the virus.

As researchers around the globe race to develop a coronavirus vaccine, U.S. authorities are warning American firms to exercise extreme caution in safeguarding their research against China and others with a track record of stealing cutting-edge medical technology.

“We are imploring all those research facilities and hospitals and pharmaceutical companies that are doing really great research to do everything in their power to protect it,” Bill Evanina, the director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, said in an interview with NPR.

“We don’t want that company or the research hospital to be the one a year from now, two years from now, identified as having it all stolen before they finished it,” said Evanina, whose center falls under the director of national intelligence.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Britain’s National Cyber Security Center recently issued a statement saying hackers are “actively targeting organisations … that include healthcare bodies, pharmaceutical companies, academia, medical research organisations, and local government.”

The statement did not name China or any other country. Reuters reported that hackers linked to Iran tried to break into email accounts at the U.S. drugmaker Gilead Sciences, which has a potentially promising drug to treat the COVID-19 virus. Iran denied the report.

China’s record

Meanwhile, Evanina says China, far more than any other country, has been aggressively stealing valuable medical technology for years. Information on a possible vaccine would be a huge prize.

“We have full expectation that China will do everything in their power to obtain any viable research that we are conducting here in the U.S.,” Evanina said. “That will be in line with their capabilities and intent the last decade plus, and we are expecting them to continue to do so.”

A number of drug makers, research labs and government health bodies have announced efforts to seek a vaccine or treatment for COVID-19. That’s made them a target, FBI Deputy Assistant Director Tonya Ugoretz said recently.

“We certainly have seen reconnaissance activity, and some intrusions, into some of those institutions,” she said. “It kind of makes them a mark for other nation-states that are interested in gleaning details about what exactly they’re doing and maybe even stealing proprietary information.”

China has long denied involvement in corporate espionage and has called for international cooperation to accelerate progress on COVID-19 vaccines and therapies. Beijing points to its sharing of the coronavirus’ gene sequence as evidence of its sincerity. Meanwhile, Chinese labs say they are racing ahead to find a homegrown vaccine.

President Trump and his administration have frequently criticized China for its handling of the coronavirus. Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have said the virus may have escaped from a lab in the central city of Wuhan. But they have not provided evidence, and this has led to skepticism about some administration claims regarding what has happened inside China in recent months.

‘Made in China 2025’

However, the U.S. national security community has shared a broad consensus for years about what they say is a sustained Chinese government effort to acquire, lawfully or not, a wide range of intellectual property, including medical research.

U.S. officials often point to China’s President Xi Jinping and his “Made in China 2025” plan, which calls for the country to be a world leader in the most important technologies of the 21st century — artificial intelligence, renewable energy, quantum computing, driverless cars and wide range of medical technologies.

In the past couple years, the Justice Department has filed charges in multiple cases involving Chinese nationals or people suspected of working for China to steal medical technology, often involving cancer research.

U.S. officials describe these efforts as taking several different forms.

One is widespread and persistent hacking attempts directed at tech companies or research labs working on technology China has identified as important.

A second method is sending students or researchers to work in the U.S., often for extended periods. In a case last year, the Justice Department filed charges against a Chinese couple that worked for 10 years at an Ohio lab that researches pediatric diseases, including childhood cancers. U.S. authorities accuse the couple of stealing research at the Ohio lab for use in a company the husband-and-wife team had established back in China.

U.S. officials say a third path is China’s Thousand Talents Program. China identifies promising research, often at a U.S. university, then offers funding through its Thousand Talents Program with the expectation it will get access to the research as well. U.S. academics are required to tell the U.S. government if they receive such foreign funding.

Security briefings

To combat the theft of U.S. technology, Evanina works with law enforcement and other government partners to brief company CEOs, university presidents and other leaders of organizations that are being targeted.

This began several years ago, and includes senior leaders in the medical community. Sometimes they are called to Washington for a briefing where the organizations may also hear from Sen. Richard Burr, the North Carolina Republican who heads the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the ranking Democrat.

“We provide (the organizations) a one-day classified briefing. We make sure they understand the complexity of the threat. We’ve done that for multiple sectors that include hospitals, medical centers and research institutions and the pharmaceutical community as well,” said Evanina.

Greg Myre is an NPR national security correspondent. Follow him @gregmyre1.

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