US officials warned on Wednesday that Chinese hackers were trying to steal coronavirus data in treatments and vaccines, adding fuel to Washington's war with Beijing over the pandemic.
The FBI and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) said that organizations researching COVID-19 are at risk of "targeting and compromising the network" for China.
They warned that groups affiliated with the Chinese government and others were trying to obtain "valuable data on intellectual property and public health related to vaccines, treatments and tests".
"China's efforts to reach these sectors pose a significant threat to our nation's response to COVID-19," they said.
The two organizations gave no examples to support the claim.
But the warning was added to the battle between the superpowers over the outbreak that started in China and killed at least 293,000 worldwide and more than 83,000 in the United States.
President Donald Trump has accused China of hiding the origins of the virus and of not cooperating in efforts to research and fight the disease.
Asked on Monday about reports that the US believed Chinese hackers were targeting vaccine research in the U.S., Trump replied, "What else is new in China? … I'm not happy."
Spies, targeted academics
On Wednesday, the warning also underlined that Washington believes that China has continued broad efforts to obtain U.S. trade and technology secrets under President Xi Jinping's effort to make his country a technological leader.
In February, the U.S. Department of Justice indicted four Chinese military personnel suspected of hacking into the database of the credit rating agency Equifax, providing personal details of 145 million Americans.
On Monday, the Justice Department announced the arrest of University of Arkansas engineering professor Simon Saw-Teong Ang for hiding links with the Chinese government and Chinese universities while working on NASA-funded projects.
The prosecution said Ang was part of the Xi-backed 1,000-talent program, which Washington says China uses to collect research from abroad.
Also on Monday, Li Xiaojiang, a former professor at Emory University in Atlanta, admitted tax fraud in a case focused on China's hidden earnings, also as a participant in the Mil Talentos program.
Senator Marco Rubio, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said these cases combined with the coronavirus are forcing China to change tactics.
"Beijing shifted its recruiting efforts to the Thousand Talent Program online and stepped up efforts to break into US medical research institutes for information about COVID-19," he said.
Running for a vaccine
Beijing has repeatedly denied American accusations.
The FBI alert comes when dozens of companies, institutes and countries around the world are rushing to develop vaccines to stop the coronavirus.
Many other groups are researching treatments for infected patients. Currently, there is no proven therapy.
An effective vaccine could allow countries to reopen and potentially earn billions of dollars for their creators.
Most experts believe it will take more than a year to get a fully approved vaccine and much longer to produce enough.
Government-supported cyber operators in Iran, North Korea, Russia and China have been accused of spreading false news about coronavirus and targeting workers and scientists.
Britain said last week that it had detected large-scale "password spraying" tactics – hackers trying to access accounts using commonly used passwords – aimed at health agencies and medical research organizations.
More and more American officials are discussing China's punishment and seeking compensation for the costs of the pandemic.
In April, the US state of Missouri sued China's leadership over what it described as deliberate deception and insufficient action to stop the virus.
On Tuesday, Republican senators proposed legislation that would enable Trump to impose sanctions against China if Beijing does not provide "complete accounting" of the coronavirus outbreak.
"The total deception of the virus's origin and spread has cost the world valuable time and lives when it began to spread," Senator Jim Inhofe said in a statement.