Nearly all US opponents have stepped up their efforts to thwart US research, and the US has responded by protecting the universities and corporations that conduct the most advanced clinical trials.
Chinese hackers have targeted attacks on universities and other research institutions, which are more computer-vulnerable than pharmaceutical companies. They conducted digital scanning operations at the University of North Carolina and other university centers involved in sophisticated research.
They were not alone: the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) targeted the computerized networks of research centers in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. Russian efforts to undermine information about vaccine candidates have been discovered by a British spy agency that monitors international fiber-optic cable networks.
Another spy was Iran, which in turn intensified its efforts in this direction.
All the major spy agencies have gotten on the wire, so everyone is watching what everyone else is doing, the New York Times reports.
NATO’s intelligence services are now also busy monitoring the attempts to undermine vaccine research, not just the movements of Russian troops and terrorist cells, says a well-informed Western official.
The competition is reminiscent of the space race between the Soviet Union and the United States, when spies on both sides were trying to find out how far the other had gone, only now the time limit is tighter and the need for a vaccine is becoming an acute necessity.
“It would be really surprising not to try to steal the most valuable biomedical research now underway,” said Justice Department official John C. Demers at a Center for Strategic and International Studies event last month. referring to China.
“Valuable from a financial point of view, but invaluable from a geopolitical point of view,” he said.
However, China’s efforts have been complex: its agents have used information from the World Health Organization to guide its attempts to subtilize the vaccine in both the United States and Europe, according to an official familiar with the operation. of spies.
Although it is unclear how China took advantage of its influential position in the WHO to collect vaccine data from around the world, it can be assumed that hackers had access to information earlier than anyone else about the most promising candidates in the world. According to the WHO, before the data becomes public, says an official familiar with information obtained by spy agencies.
U.S. intelligence officials learned of China’s efforts in early February as the epidemic took hold in the United States, according to former and current U.S. officials, the CIA and other intelligence services closely monitoring China’s movements in international agencies, including the WHO.
Intelligence reports contributed to the White House’s decision to take a hard line on WHO, a former intelligence official said.
Chinese hackers have targeted several US universities, and probably hacked the computer systems of some of them, US officials say.
Demers stressed that China is behind “multiple intrusions”, in addition to those contained in the indictment of two Chinese hackers, who carried out the attacks for the intelligence services of the Chinese Ministry of State Security. They were trying to find out data and research on vaccines developed by American biotechnology companies.
The FBI has alerted the University of North Carolina to theft attempts by Chinese hackers, two people familiar with the matter said. Teams of Chinese hackers tried to access the epidemiological department’s computer networks without infiltrating them.
The university said it receives regular alerts from security services and has permanent monitoring systems to protect itself from attacks by state-sponsored organizations.
Government officials believe that China is trying to take advantage of research partnerships with American universities. Other officials have warned that Chinese agents in the United States and other parts of the world are gathering information about the researchers themselves.
The Trump administration closed the Chinese consultancy in Houston on July 22 and because Chinese agents used it as an outpost to contact medical experts in the city, according to the FBI.
Universities are also targeted because their IT protections are weaker than those of pharmaceutical companies. The work of spies is now more intense as researchers submit more and more work on vaccine candidates and antiviral treatments for scientific review – providing information on important development formulas and strategies for opponents.
Officials have no reason to believe that foreign intelligence agencies have obtained too much information from US biotechnology companies Gilead Sciences, Novavax and Moderna.
Russia’s efforts have focused on information about Oxford University research developing a vaccine in partnership with pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, according to reports from British, US and Canadian news agencies, published in July.
The Russian hackers involved are part of a group called the Comfortable Bear, affiliated with SVR.
US internal security officials have alerted targets and strengthened cyber protections. In most cases, the attacks exploited already known vulnerabilities, and did not use sophisticated cyber weapons to find new breaches.
No corporations or universities have reported data theft so far following the disclosure of hackers’ efforts. But some hacking attempts have bypassed cyber protections and penetrated computer networks, a government official says.
Intelligence officials say Chinese and Russian hackers test the vulnerabilities of search networks.
“It’s really a time trial for the good guys to find the vulnerabilities and cover them up before their opponent finds out and exploits them,” and the race is tighter than ever, says Bryan S. Ware, assistant director of the agency. cyber security of the internal security department.
Although US officials say their espionage efforts are purely defensive, intelligence officials say things are not so clear, as they may try to find out what Russia, China and Iran have stolen. collect them in turn.
However, officials have expressed concern that hacking attempts could affect the investigation, as hackers can intentionally or unintentionally compromise computer networks.