China, Iran hackers fingered for targeting COVID-19 vaccine R&D: reports

Nuix's latest Black Report offers insights straight from the mouths of hackers and penetration testers (Image xijian / iStockPhoto)
Gilead Sciences' COVID-19 therapy remdesivir received the FDA's emergency approval last week. (iStockPhoto)

With drugmakers and institutions racing after coronavirus drugs and vaccines, law enforcement agencies say hackers are trying to steal some of their discoveries. Now, after news of a potential cyberattack from Iran, the U.S. plans to implicate China in other hacking attempts on companies leading the COVID-19 pack.

The U.S. government is planning to accuse China of attempting to hack COVID-19 vaccine research from global pharmaceutical companies and health agencies in a new warning, a source told The Wall Street Journal. 

The FBI and Department of Homeland Security warning will specify Beijing's role in a scheme to steal data from American companies and institutions, the outlet reported. The warning presents a major escalation in the two countries' war of words as researchers frantically search for an answer to the novel coronavirus pandemic. 

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The warning is expected in the next few days, but the wording and release date could change, the Journal said.

China's alleged hacking efforts come days after an Iranian hacker group known as "Charming Kitten" was implicated in a "password spraying" attack on Gilead Sciences, the drugmaker behind COVID-19 therapy remdesivir. 

Gilead was recently hit with an attack that used fake email login pages in an attempt to access passwords of high-ranking executives, Reuters reported

In April, the Iranian hacker group sent an email, purportedly from a journalist, to a Gilead legal and corporate affairs executive as part of a scheme to compromise the drugmaker's company email accounts, three cybersecurity experts told Reuters.

Iran's mission to the United Nations denied the country's involvement in the scheme. Reuters wasn't able to confirm whether the attack was successful.

RELATED: Early missteps, transparency questions dog U.S. government's remdesivir rollout: reports

Last week, the U.K. and U.S. governments warned that "malicious cyber campaigns" were targeting healthcare policymakers and researchers to gain access to corporate emails using "password spraying," or using common passwords to access a number of accounts.

Gilead has been the focus of intense international interest since its remdesivir won emergency clearance from the FDA last week. The drug is the only new therapy so far authorized to treat COVID-19.

The company has said it would donate its entire existing supply, or about 1.5 million doses, to the U.S. government for distribution. The Trump administration has shipped about 32,000 doses to Indiana, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Tennessee and Virginia, Axios reports.

RELATED: Gilead, working on its own remdesivir ramp-up, scouts licensing partners for global production

With the emergency approval, Gilead has worked to increase its own supply of the medicine and is in licensing talks with some of the “world’s leading chemical and pharmaceutical manufacturing companies” about their ability to produce remdesivir for countries in Europe, Asia and beyond until at least 2022.

The company is discussing licensing the med to generics makers in India and Pakistan to supply patients in developing countries. It's also considering licensing the drug to the Medicines Patent Pool and exploring using UNICEF’s expertise for distribution in low- and middle-income countries. 

Editor's Note: This story has been updated with information about the China warning.

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