US-China Rift Takes Another Turn over COVID-19 Vaccine Research Data

US-China Rift Takes Another Turn over COVID-19 Vaccine Research Data 

Last updated on July 31st, 2020

The US-China rift doesn’t seem to become a thing of the past anytime soon. It is only igniting further with each passing day. To add the woes of China – battling the coronavirus-related allegations and trying to stabilise its economy – the US has accused the country of sponsoring hackers who are targeting labs developing COVID-19 vaccines.

The US Justice Department has charged two Chinese men for allegedly spying on American companies that were doing research related to the coronavirus vaccines. The Chinese men have also been accused of getting help from state agents for other thefts.

Last week, Russia had come under the limelight for data theft related to the COVID-19 vaccine. Superpowers – the US, the UK and Canada – accused Russia of trying to steal research data.

The indictment against former electrical engineering students Li Xiaoyu and Dong Jiazhi came during a US crackdown on Chinese cyber espionage. Both of them have been indicted on the charges of trade secret theft and wire fraud conspiracy.

Two US firms, a Massachusetts biotech firm and a Maryland company, that were conducting research related to COVID-19 vaccine were on the radar of the two accused. The prosecutors said that the men spied on the Massachusetts firm in January and hacked the Maryland company days after it announced to be researching on COVID.

Officials revealed that though the men were private hackers, they occasionally received support from Chinese intelligence agents, including an officer from the Chinese Ministry of State Security (MSS).

According to the indictment, the hackers “worked with, were assisted by, and operated with the acquiescence of” the MSS.

The indictment said the two men – who reside in China – recently “researched vulnerabilities in the networks of biotech and other firms publicly known for work on COVID-19 vaccines, treatments, and testing technology”.

The hackers also infiltrated a British artificial intelligence firm, a Spanish defence contractor, and an Australian solar energy company.

Apart from sealing the data related to COVID-19 vaccines, the hackers allegedly stole military data and provided the Chinese government with the passwords of a democracy activist in Hong Kong and a former Tiananmen Square protester.

“China has now taken its place, alongside Russia, Iran and North Korea, in that shameful club of nations that provide a safe haven for cybercriminals in exchange for those criminals being ‘on-call’ to work for the benefit of the state, here to feed the Chinese Communist party’s insatiable hunger for American and other non-Chinese companies’ hard-earned intellectual property, including Covid-19 research,” John Demers, assistant attorney general for national security, said on Tuesday.

FBI Director Christopher Wray, earlier this month, accused China of a “whole-of-state effort to become the world’s only superpower by any means necessary.”

“We’ve now reached a point where the FBI is now opening a new China-related counterintelligence case every 10 hours. Of the nearly 5,000 active counterintelligence cases currently under way across the country, almost half are related to China,” Wray said.

Dismissing all the claims over China spying the US firm to steal COVID-19 vaccine-related data, Hua Chunying, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, said this is “absurd”.

The US-China relations have taken a sour turn in the past few months, especially after the US State Secretary, Mike Pompeo along with the UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson and the UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab criticised China over the national security law imposed in Hong Kong. The two countries have been in a state of social media war since the imposition of the controversial law over the former British colony. Considering the retaliatory mode of both the nuclear powers, this will take a while before it gets resolved.

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