Lawmakers ask for briefings on Chinese targeting of coronavirus research

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Lawmakers in the House and Senate requested briefings from key federal agencies this week around a recent alert that Chinese hackers are targeting U.S. research groups involved in developing vaccines and treatments for the COVID-19 virus.

The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) issued a joint alert earlier this month warning that Chinese government-backed hackers had been attempting to “illicitly obtain valuable intellectual property and public health data related to vaccines, treatments, and testing from networks and personnel affiliated with COVID-19-related research.”

Republican members of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, including ranking member Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), sent a letter to FBI Director Christopher Wray and CISA Director Christopher Krebs on Friday asking for a briefing on the threat. 

The members described the alert as “extremely concerning” but “not surprising” given past Chinese intellectual property theft issues. 

“We applaud your work in notifying the public to raise awareness of these threats and appreciate the resources and guidance you are providing to institutions that may be targeted,” the GOP lawmakers wrote. “Given the critical nature of the COVID-19 research being conducted at U.S. institutions, it is imperative they take the proper steps to secure their networks and take advantage of the resources your agencies have without delay.”

The members requested that the agencies provide a briefing on the threat to members and staff no later than June 22. 

The request for a briefing was made two days after a group of Senate Judiciary Committee members sent a similar request to the agencies. 

Sens. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) asked that both Wray and Krebs brief their staff in a classified setting on the threat posed to U.S. research groups by June 20. The senators asked for details on what, if any, resources the agencies needed to continue combating state-sponsored hacking. 

“It is absolutely unacceptable for Chinese government affiliated hackers to attempt to steal or disrupt important research from companies and institutions who are developing essential diagnostics, cures, and treatments,” the senators wrote. 

Prior to the joint alert with the FBI, CISA joined the United Kingdom’s National Cyber Security Centre in sending out a separate warning highlighting cyber threats to health care and essential services groups. The agencies noted that these groups were likely being targeted to steal intellectual property around COVID-19 research. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a spike in cyberattacks on health-related agencies and organizations. 

Hackers have targeted both the World Health Organization and the Department of Health and Human Services. Iranian-linked hackers recently targeted Gilead Sciences Inc., a U.S. drug company that makes the antiviral drug remdesivir. This has been found in one study to shorten the recovery time for those suffering from COVID-19.

Tags Ben Sasse Christopher Wray Frank Lucas John Cornyn Thom Tillis
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