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U.S. Officials: Beware Of China And Others Trying To Steal COVID-19 Research


We know researchers worldwide are racing to develop a vaccine for the coronavirus. As this competition plays out, the U.S. intelligence community is warning American firms to exercise extreme caution in safeguarding their research. U.S. officials say China has been aggressively stealing cutting-edge medical technology for years, and now any information on a possible vaccine would be a huge prize. Well, for more, we're joined by NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre.

Hi, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So what exactly is this warning?

MYRE: Well, the Department of Homeland Security in this country and Britain's Cyber Security Agency have issued a joint statement saying they're seeing hackers try to break into organizations that are doing coronavirus research. These include pharmaceutical companies, university research hospitals, government health agencies. Now, I spoke with Bill Evanina. He's the director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, which is responsible for monitoring this.

BILL EVANINA: We are employing all those research facilities and hospitals and companies that are doing really great research to do everything in their power to protect it. We don't want that company or the research hospital to be the one a year from now, two years from now, identified as it was all stolen before they finished it.

KELLY: So this is the top counterintelligence official in the U.S. saying this. Would he speak to how they know that China is behind this activity?

MYRE: So China hasn't been formally named, which is often the case, a common practice in the early stages when they're investigating and checking. And there's also skepticism about the Trump administration. They've been blaming China for the way it's handled the coronavirus outbreak. They've made accusations that haven't been backed up with hard evidence. But Evanina has worked in this field for three decades. He says China is in a league by itself when it comes to stealing medical technology through a variety of means. And they've really been ramping up the past couple years. He's seen it particularly in cancer research. And when it comes to coronavirus research, he put it this way.

EVANINA: We have full expectations that China will do everything in their power to obtain any viable research that we are conducting here in the U.S. That will be in line with their capabilities and intent the last decade-plus.

KELLY: So what is the U.S. government doing to try to stop this?

MYRE: Well, the Department of Justice has filed a number of cases in the past year against Chinese nationals or those working for China inside the United States. And well before we ever heard of the coronavirus, Evanina and others in his department had been briefing chief executive officers, university presidents, heads of research labs in industries that China has been targeting. And this has included the medical community. Here he is again.

EVANINA: We provided them a one-day classified briefing so we make sure they understand the complexity of the threat. We send them back. We've done that for multiple sectors in the critical infrastructure to include hospitals, medical centers and research institutions and the biofarm community as well.

KELLY: All right. That is Bill Evanina, the head of U.S. counterintelligence, speaking with my colleague, NPR's Greg Myre.

Thank you, Greg.

MYRE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.