- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 3, 2020

North Korea is running an elaborate cyberespionage operation aimed at hacking companies developing COVID-19 treatments and vaccines, including the U.S. pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson, according to sources involved in investigating the hacking attempts.

The hacking attacks began in August and September, as the race to develop vaccines gained full steam among American, British, South Korean and other research firms, according to multiple reports this week.

Four people who’ve investigated the attacks told Reuters that the operations have involved hackers using web domains mimicking online login portals to try and trick staff at targeted companies and organizations into revealing their passwords.

Overall, the suspected North Korean hackers have tried to break into at least nine health organizations, including Johnson & Johnson and the Maryland-based vaccine developer Novavax Inc., the news agency reported.

The Wall Street Journal has separately reported that at least six pharmaceutical companies in the U.S., the U.K. and South Korea working on COVID-19 treatments have been targeted as the North Korean regime seeks sensitive information it could sell or weaponize.



The Journal cited a list of firms that includes three South Korean companies with COVID-19 drugs in earlier clinical trials: Genexine Inc., Shin Poong Pharmaceutical Co. and Celltrion Inc. It also cited U.K.-based AstraZeneca PLC, whose vaccine co-developed with the University of Oxford has been shown to be as much as 90% effective. The company is seeking emergency approval.

The reports have said it’s unclear whether hackers have succeeded in swiping useful information from the companies.

The ruling regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has not confirmed a single coronavirus case in the isolated nation. However, South Korean and U.S. officials say there is an outbreak of unknown proportions in North Korea, which was engaged in significant trade and cross-border activities with China prior to closing the border between the two shortly after the virus was found to be spreading on the Chinese side in early 2020.

In a related development this week, a report citing Japanese intelligence claimed Mr. Kim and other high-level members of the North Korean regime have been given a COVID-19 vaccine by the Chinese government. The report by the online publication “19FortyFive” claimed two Japanese intelligence sources said Mr. Kim and “multiple other” regime officials were given the vaccine “within the last two to three weeks.”

The sources, who spoke on condition of not being named, would not confirm which company inside China was the manufacturer of the vaccine.

A report by CNBC over the weekend cited the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs as saying China has five homegrown vaccine candidates in phase three trials. The network claimed Sinopharm, or China National Pharmaceutical Group, reportedly submitted an application to Chinese authorities last week seeking regulatory approval.

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