US authorities have accused China and other foreign powers of attempting to steal information on their COVID-19 vaccine efforts.
The FBI and Department of Homeland Security claimed Chinese hackers are targeting American universities and pharmaceutical firms in a bid to gather information relating to coronavirus treatments and vaccines, adding that the intrusions may be jeopardising progress on medical research.
It comes amid escalating tensions between the Chinese government and the Trump administration over the question of the origin of the deadly virus, which has killed almost 300,000 people worldwide.
Neither security agency cited any specific examples, but they warned that institutions and companies involved in work on vaccines, treatments and testing for coronavirus should take additional security measures to protect data and be aware of the potential threat.
“China’s efforts to target these sectors pose a significant threat to our nation’s response to COVID-19,” said a statement from the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. “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.”
The warning echoes longstanding US complaints that China has engaged in the wholesale theft of technology and trade secrets to build its economy.
Institutions that have received media attention for their efforts related to COVID-19 should assume that they would be targeted and should take precautions, the Department of Justice said.
“The potential theft of this information jeopardises the delivery of secure, effective, and efficient treatment options,” it said.
The FBI and the cybersecurity agency said they were issuing the alert to raise public awareness of the potential threat and said additional technical details would be released in the coming days.
China has defended its response to the virus, and Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian denied the government was involved in any attempt to steal virus-related data on Monday, after some media reported on the warning in advance.
“We are leading the world in COVID-19 treatment and vaccine research,” Mr Zhao told reporters. “It is immoral to target China with rumours and slanders in the absence of any evidence.”
VACCINE RACE IS ON
The global race is on to successfully produce a vaccine for COVID-19.
A vaccine is widely acknowledged as the key to ending the pandemic, with enormous benefits for the country that gets there first.
Governments, charities and massive pharmaceutical corporations are sinking billions of dollars into bets with low odds of success.
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A vaccine would see potential profits for the medical and science industry, makers of medicine and researchers. But for the US or China, it would also mark a massive geopolitical victory.
China has already made significant headway on a vaccine, with a recent New York Times report citing one official who estimated an emergency-use vaccine could be available as early as September.
China also has a lot to gain from being the first to offer the world a vaccine. The government is not only seeking to protect its own people, but also to bolster its reputation, which has been tarnished due to its handling of the initial COVID-19 outbreak in December.
Being the first country to develop a vaccine would both boost its reputation, and help cement its standing as a scientific and medical superpower.
The United States, meanwhile, is now the worst-hit country, with more deaths and positive cases than anywhere else in the world.
The US has recorded more than 1.49 million cases and around 85,000 deaths since the pandemic first broke out.
To put those numbers in perspective, the UK – which has the second-highest death toll – has recorded less than half those deaths at around 33,000. Australia has recorded 98 deaths.
Late last week, the World Health Organisation announced a “landmark collaboration” across the international community to raise $A12.5 billion to accelerate the coronavirus vaccine development and ensure equitable access worldwide.
Australia, as well as countries across Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East and the Americas, announced its participation. Australia pledged $352 million to the cause.
But the United States and China did not announce their participation.
“There will be no US official participation,” a spokesman for the US mission in Geneva said, adding that the US supports “global co-operation to develop a vaccine”.
A WHO spokeswoman said the announcement was the beginning of a global collaboration,
“We would welcome more countries coming on board,” she said.
– with wires