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US says two Chinese hackers targeted coronavirus vaccine information

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Companies racing to develop a vaccine to end the COVID-19 pandemic have been targeted by two hackers linked to the Chinese government, the US Justice Department has alleged.

The FBI accused China of acting like “an organised criminal syndicate” by sponsoring criminal hackers to steal hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of trade secrets, intellectual property, and other valuable business information from biotech firms around the world.

Companies that have gone public on potential coronavirus vaccines and treatments have had their research compromised, the Justice Department claimed.

They charged two Chinese men, Li Xiaoyu and Dong Jiazhi, with trade secret theft and wire fraud conspiracy. The accused were formerly electrical engineering students.

An indictment says the alleged hackers in recent months researched vulnerabilities in the computer networks of companies publicly known for their work in developing vaccines and treatments.

They included a Massachusetts biotech firm and a Maryland company that was researching cures for the coronavirus.

The hackers’ victims also allegedly included high-tech companies in the UK, Japan, Belgium, Germany, Sweden, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Spain and South Korea.

Federal prosecutors say the men stole information not only for themselves but also information they knew would be of interest and value to the Chinese government.

They were also indicted for targeting an Australian defence contractor and solar energy engineering company, the identities of which were not disclosed.

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.

“China steals intellectual property and research which bolsters its economy, and then they use that illicit gain as a weapon to silence any country that would dare challenge their illegal actions,” said FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich.

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

The case was filed earlier this month in federal court in the state of Washington and was unsealed on Tuesday (local time).

Meanwhile, prime minister Scott Morrison has confirmed he and China’s President Xi Jinping have not spoken in over a year.

Mr Morrison told the ABC he last spoke to the leader of Australia’s biggest trade partner at the G20 summit in Japan in June last year.

He insisted the relationship was important, despite the lack of communication at a tense time between the two countries, but he suggested Australia would not compromise.

“The relationship is important and we have no intention of injuring it, but nor do we intend to do things that are contrary to our interests,” Mr Morrison told the ABC’s 7.30 program on Tuesday.

Trade Minister Simon Birmingham has spent months unsuccessfully trying to get a response from his Chinese counterpart after Beijing imposed hefty tariffs on Australian exports.

Relations with China have become fraught since Australia pushed for a World Health Organisation investigation into the origins of the coronavirus.

China has placed an 80 per cent tariff on Australian barley, blocked beef imports, and warned tourists and students not to travel to Australia because they say it’s unsafe and racist.

And this month, China accused Australia of interfering in its affairs after Canberra offered safe haven to Hong Kong residents and strengthened travel warning.

-with AAP