Chinese Hackers Stole Work on Covid-19 Vaccine: US Charges

French lab scientists in hazmat gear inserting liquid in test tube manipulate potentially infected patient samples at Pasteur Institute in Paris on Feb. 6, 2020. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Two Chinese hackers were indicted Tuesday on charges that they targeted U.S. researchers developing a vaccine for Covid-19 as part of a global campaign backed by Beijing intelligence.

“It is the first time that we’re announcing charges that present what we call this ‘blended threat’ of criminal actors also doing state-sponsored activities and being allowed to do their criminal activities and profit off those criminal activities by the state, because they can be on call to the state to do its work as well,” Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers said in a press conference. 

Unsealed this morning in Spokane, Washington, the July 7 indictment traces the “malicious cyber activities” back more than 10 years. 

It alleges Li Xiaoyu and Dong Jiazhi stole hundreds of millions of dollars worth of intellectual property and trade secrets from several U.S. biotech firms developing a vaccine as the world continues to fight the widespread novel coronavirus outbreaks. 

The latest Justice Department action against China comes as President Donald Trump has aggressively blamed the nation for unleashing the global Covid-19 pandemic, the political consequences of which have been devastating for Trump’s re-election chances this November as cases in the U.S. continue to soar. 

On Tuesday, Justice Department officials repeatedly likened China’s “sweeping global computer intrusion campaign” to those of Russia, Iran and North Korea.

Demers attributed the alleged attacks to “the Chinese Communist Party’s appetite for American and other non-Chinese companies hard earned intellectual property, including Covid-19 research.” 

FBI Deputy Director David L. Bowdich told reporters China is facing degradation of its image as a trusted partner on the world stage.

“This type of economic coercion is not what we expect from a trusted world leader,” Bowdich said. “It is what we expect from an organized criminal syndicate.”

Demers contended meanwhile that the hacks violated China’s 2015 commitment to the United States not to conduct, or knowingly support, cybertheft of intellectual property geared at giving Chinese companies a competitive advantage.

Accusing China of brazen theft, he also said the attacks targeted industries outlined in “Made in China 2025,” a strategic plan the foreign power announced in 2015 to move away from low-end manufacturing and transition to being a global high-tech producer. 

“While the plan calls for an innovation driven approach, cases like this one show it is as much a roadmap to theft as it is a guide to innovation,” Demers said. 

The U.S. investigation into the two hackers began with looking into an intrusion into computer systems at the Department of Energy field offices at the Hanford Site in Washington state.

Several U.S. software, pharmaceutical and engineering companies fell victim to the attacks, which began with a 2014 hack on a California technology and defense firm that specializes in radio, laser and antennae technology, according to the indictment.

The Justice Department claims China’s Ministry of State Security provided a safe haven for the alleged cybercriminals for years as the hackers carried out attacks on the United States, Australia, Belgium, Germany, Japan, Lithuania, the Netherlands, South Korea, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom, among other locations. 

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