The United States Justice Department has accused the Chinese Government of hacking firms developing coronavirus vaccines and stealing hundreds of millions of dollars worth of intellectual property and trade secrets from companies across the globe.
An indictment said two Chinese hackers had researched vulnerabilities in the computer networks of companies publicly known for their work in developing vaccines and treatments in recent months.
The news came as US officials escalated warnings about foreign government efforts to steal American innovation.
It was the latest in a series of aggressive Trump administration actions targeting China, as President Donald Trump, whose re-election prospects have been damaged by the coronavirus outbreak, continues to blame China for the pandemic.
The indictment included charges of trade secret theft and wire fraud conspiracy against the two hackers.
Federal prosecutors said they stole information not only for their personal profit, but also because it would be of interest and value to the Chinese Government.
The two defendants are not in custody, and federal officials conceded that they were not likely to set foot in an American courtroom.
However, the indictment carries important symbolic and deterrence value for the Justice Department, which decided that publicly calling out the behaviour was more worthwhile than waiting for the unlikely scenario in which the defendants would travel to the US and risk arrest.
The alleged hacking began more than 10 years ago, with targets including pharmaceutical, solar and medical device companies but also political dissidents, activists and clergy in the United States, China and Hong Kong, federal authorities said.
There was no immediate indication from the indictment that the hackers had successfully obtained any COVID-19 research, despite efforts to snoop on the companies.
China accused of being a ‘safe haven’ for cyber criminals
The charges are believed to be the first accusing foreign hackers of targeting scientific innovation related to the coronavirus, though US and Western intelligence agencies have warned for months about those efforts.
Last week United Kingdom authorities accused a hacking group with links to Russian intelligence of trying to target research on the disease.
Prosecutors said the defendants conducted reconnaissance on the computer network of a Massachusetts biotech firm known to be researching a potential vaccine in January, and searched for vulnerabilities on the network of a Maryland firm less than a week after it said it was conducting similar scientific work.
The Clean Network program is the Trump Administration’s comprehensive approach to guarding our citizens’ privacy and our companies’ most sensitive information from aggressive intrusions by malign actors, such as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
The trade war with the United States will only make China stronger and will never bring the country to its knees, the ruling Communist Party’s People’s Daily wrote in a front-page commentary that evoked the patriotic spirit of past wars.