The Trump administration warned Wednesday that the Chinese government is seeking to hijack U.S. research aimed at the COVID-19 pandemic and urged organizations to tighten cyber-security defenses.
The public caution issued by the Justice Department indicated that the FBI had opened an investigation into suspected targeting by hackers linked to the PRC.
"These actors have been observed attempting to identify and illicitly obtain valuable intellectual property... and public health data related to vaccines, treatments, and testing from networks and personnel affiliated with COVID-19-related research," the Justice bulletin stated. "The potential theft of this information jeopardizes the delivery of secure, effective, and efficient treatment options."
The administration's warning is all but certain to ratchet up tensions between Washington and Beijing. President Donald Trump has repeatedly blamed China for failing to control the coronavirus outbreak that has claimed more than 80,000 lives in the U.S.
Trump was back on the attack Wednesday, asserting that the mounting casualties far outweighed any benefit of the trade agreement reached between the countries earlier this year.
"As I have said for a long time, dealing with China is a very expensive thing to do," Trump tweeted. "We just made a great Trade Deal, the ink was barely dry, and the World was hit by the Plague from China. 100 Trade Deals wouldn’t make up the difference - and all those innocent lives lost!"
Justice advised research institutions to be aware of possible "insider" threats that could facilitate the "surreptitious review or theft of COVID-19-related material."
Officials said the FBI was working with the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), which is responsible for guarding the nation's critical infrastructure.
"Assume that press attention affiliating your organization with COVID-19-related research will lead to increased interest and cyber activity," the bulletin stated, urging that organizations begin "patching" systems to guard against potential vulnerabilities.
Meg King, director of the Science and Technology Innovation Program at The Wilson Center in Washington, said virus research provides new and potentially valuable targets for U.S. adversaries.
"Both nation-states and criminals seek this information for geopolitical advantage or financial gain, and the... warning to the industry to address cybersecurity vulnerability at all levels - from startups to pharmaceutical giants - is critical," King said in a written statement. "Just as the medical community protects patient data, research advances must also be safeguarded."