US officially warns China is launching cyberattacks to steal coronavirus research

(CNN) — The US Department of Homeland Security and the FBI issued a “public service announcement” Wednesday warning that China is likely launching cyberattacks to steal coronavirus data related to vaccines and treatments from US research institutions and pharmaceutical companies, calling it a “significant threat.”

The joint warning from the FBI and DHS’s cyber arm, CISA, warns “organizations researching COVID-19 of likely targeting and network compromise by the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Healthcare, pharmaceutical and research sectors working on COVID-19 response should all be aware they are the prime targets of this activity and take the necessary steps to protect their systems.”

The notification elevates the accusation by the US government that China is taking advantage of the pandemic to carry out significant cyber espionage on critical institutions fighting the virus.

CNN has previously reported that the administration has pointed the finger at China for attempting to steal coronavirus research as officials are warning they have seen a growing wave of cyberattacks on US government agencies and medical institutions leading the pandemic response by nation states and criminal groups.

“We have to be the first ones through the door if we want any of our allies to follow us,” a national security official told CNN earlier Wednesday, explaining the thinking behind the warning. “If this pandemic can’t get our allies in the right place, what’s going to?”

The New York Times first reported that the announcement was expected and CNN confirmed the news earlier Wednesday.

On Monday, the head of the Justice Department’s National Security Division appearing on CNBC said, “it would be crazy to think that right now the Chinese were not behind some of the cyber activity that we’re seeing targeting US pharmaceutical companies and targeting research institutes” doing coronavirus research.

“This is the holy grail of biomedical research right now” and it has “tremendous value both commercially and geopolitically,” he added.

Demers also said that US companies will ultimately want to sell their product.

Cyber espionage from China against the United States has spiked in the months since the outbreak of the virus according to the leading cybersecurity group FireEye. The group reported that Chinese group APT41 has carried out “one of the broadest campaigns by a Chinese cyber espionage actor we have observed in recent years.”