Tensions between Washington and Beijing have been over the pandemic as cases in the US continue to spiral out of control. There are currently more than 1,400,000 cases in the US. At least 84,763 people are confirmed to have died of COVID-19.
In a warning on Wednesday, the FBI and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (Cisa) said they were investigating the “targeting and compromise” of US research groups.
They claimed the attack was made by the People’s Republic of China and its affiliates.
Cisa warned the illicit campaign could jeopardise the delivery of treatments.
“These actors have been observed attempting to identify and illicitly obtain valuable intellectual property and public health data related to vaccines, treatments, and testing,” the public warning said.
However, the agency did not name the organisations targeted or say whether any attacks had been successful.
“Healthcare, pharmaceutical and research sectors working on Covid-19 response should all be aware they are the prime targets of this activity,” it added, urging the groups to boost their protections against outside hacking as well as against so-called insider threats.
This includes when internal employees are co-opted into leaking data to foreign intelligence.
The US and China have repeatedly accused each other of failures with regard to the pandemic.
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The Trump administration has remained hostile towards Beijing, accusing them to withholding vital information about the coronavirus.
Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state suggested the disease originated in a Chinese virology lab in Wuhan, the city where the first reports of the virus emerged.
The US state department also said last week that China was trying to shape public understanding of the pandemic for its own purposes, arguing Beijing wanted to reshape the global narrative to “look as though it is the leader in the global recovery and not the source of the problem”.
In the warning issued by the US agencies on Wednesday, officials said they would release “additional technical details” about the alleged hacking of researchers in the coming days.
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James Lewis, a cyber security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think-tank, said Chinese hackers were still relatively poor at hiding their tracks.
Mr Lewis claimed that US universities were particularly bad at protecting their networks.
“Chinese espionage is already massive but there are signs they are re-targeting from traditional targets on to biomedical targets — the warning is timely but it is probably a little late for some places,” he said.
Mr Lewis added that any successful hacks could imperil domestic commercial efforts to develop a vaccine or hand China a propaganda coup if it were to develop the research and then claim credit.
“In an open, trusted relationship, they would just come and ask us,” he said.
“But the last couple of years has seen a big uptick in Chinese espionage.”
This comes after Trump said he would have to wait a week or two before he was able to assess whether China is complying with the rules set out in their Phase 1 trade deal.
Under the agreement, signed in January, China commits to increase US goods purchases. The Trump administration is already considering imposing sanctions on China over its handling of the coronavirus pandemic during its early stages.
Trump confirmed China was purchasing American farm goods, but he was unsure whether it was buying enough to meet the agreement’s commitments on US agricultural and manufactured goods, energy and services.
The US president said: “I’ll be able to report in about a week or two as to – not only with the farmers, but with many other industries also.
“They understand they have a deal and hopefully they’re going to get with the deal and we’ll see.
“They may. They may not. We’re going to find out.”
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