Race for Coronavirus Vaccine Pits Spy Against Spy
The intelligence wars over vaccine research have intensified as China and Russia expand their efforts to steal American work at both research institutes and companies.
By Julian E. Barnes and Michael Venutolo-Mantovani
- Sept. 5, 2020, 11:44 a.m. ET
WASHINGTON — Chinese intelligence hackers were intent on stealing coronavirus vaccine data, so they looked for what they believed would be an easy target. Instead of simply going after pharmaceutical companies, they conducted digital reconnaissance on the University of North Carolina and other schools doing cutting-edge research.
They were not the only spies at work. Russia’s premier intelligence service, the S.V.R., targeted vaccine research networks in the United States, Canada and Britain, espionage efforts that were first detected by a British spy agency monitoring international fiber optic cables.
Iran, too, has drastically stepped up its attempts to steal information about vaccine research, and the United States has increased its own efforts to track the espionage of its adversaries and shore up its defenses.
In short, every major spy service around the globe is trying to find out what everyone else is up to.
The coronavirus pandemic has prompted one of the fastest peacetime mission shifts in recent times for the world’s intelligence agencies, pitting them against one another in a new grand game of spy versus spy, according to interviews with current and former intelligence officials and others tracking the espionage efforts.
Nearly all of the United States’ adversaries intensified their attempts to steal American research while Washington, in turn, has moved to protect the universities and corporations doing the most advanced work. NATO intelligence, normally concerned with the movement of Russian tanks and terrorist cells, has expanded to scrutinize Kremlin efforts to steal vaccine research as well, according to a Western official briefed on the intelligence.
Besides the University of North Carolina, Chinese hackers have also targeted other universities around the country and some may have had their networks breached, American officials said. Mr. Demers said in his speech that China had conducted “multiple intrusions” beyond what the Justice Department revealed in an indictment in July, which accused two hackers of working on behalf of China’s Ministry of State Security spy service to pursue vaccine information and research from American biotechnology companies.
Chinese intelligence officials are focused on universities in part because they view the institutions’ data protections as less robust than those of pharmaceutical companies. But spy work is also intensifying as researchers share more vaccine candidates and antiviral treatments for peer review, giving adversaries a better chance of gaining access to formulations and vaccine development strategies, said an American government official briefed on the intelligence.
So far, officials believe that foreign spies have taken little information from the American biotech companies they targeted: Gilead Sciences, Novavax and Moderna.
At the same time the British electronic surveillance agency G.C.H.Q. was learning about the Russian effort and American intelligence learned of the Chinese hacking, the Department of Homeland Security and F.B.I. dispatched teams to work with American biotech teams to bolster their computer networks’ defenses.
The Russian effort, announced by British, American and Canadian intelligence agencies in July, was primarily focused on gathering intelligence about research by Oxford University and its pharmaceutical corporate partner, AstraZeneca.