North Korean hackers targeting pharmaceutical companies working on COVID-19 vaccines: report

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North Korean actors have attempted to hack into at least six pharmaceutical companies developing COVID-19 treatments in the U.S., the U.K. and South Korea, The Wall Street Journal reported.

The outlet, citing people familiar with the matter, reported Wednesday that among the companies targeted were U.S.-based Johnson & Johnson and Novavax, both of which are developing coronavirus vaccine candidates.

South Korean companies in earlier stages of COVID-19 drug trials were also reportedly included in the hacking attempts: Genexine, Shin Poong Pharmaceutical Co. and Celltrion. 

The people who spoke to the Journal also said North Korean hackers targeted U.K.-based company AstraZeneca, which announced last month that interim data revealed its coronavirus vaccine to be up to 90 percent effective.

The reported hackings comes after Reuters reported last week that North Korean hackers had attempted to break into AstraZeneca’s systems in recent weeks. 

According to Reuters, the hackers posed as recruiters on social networking sites LinkedIn and WhatsApp to reach out to AstraZeneca staff with fake job offers, along with job descriptions that included code designed to gain access to staff members’ computers. 

AstraZeneca has declined to comment to both Reuters and the Journal on the reported hacking attempts. 

South Korean lawmakers briefed by members of their National Intelligence Service (NIS) said last week that the North Korean government under leader Kim Jong Un also appeared to launch an unsuccessful attempt at hacking at least one South Korean pharmaceutical company developing a vaccine. 

North Korea has continued to argue that it has not had a single COVID-19 case, although this has been disputed by several outside experts. 

Spokespeople from both Shin Poong and Celltrion told the Journal that although they had received hacking attempts, there did not appear to be any damage to the companies’ systems. 

The Celltrion spokesman said the hacking attacks by North Korean actors had ramped up sometime in the second half of 2020.

A Johnson & Johnson spokesman told the Journal that the company remains vigilant against threats to its data, while a Novavax spokeswoman said the company is aware of the foreign threats and is working with “appropriate government agencies and commercial cybersecurity experts.”

A Genexine spokesman told the newspaper that the company is looking into the matter, although it has not yet found evidence of any hacking attempt. 

On Tuesday, Harry Kazianis, an expert on North Korea at the Center for the National Interest think tank, said that Kim and his family, along with multiple high-ranking North Korean officials, had received an experimental coronavirus vaccine from China. 

Kazianis said the information was gathered by anonymous Japanese intelligence members, although it was unclear which company created the vaccines or whether they had been proven to be safe, according to Reuters. 

Tags AstraZeneca Coronavirus coronavirus vaccine COVID-19 GENEXINE Hacking johnson & johnson Kim Jong Un North Korea Novavax Reuters South Korea The Wall Street Journal United Kingdom United States
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