COVID-19: North Korean hackers ‘tried to steal vaccine and treatment’ details

North Korea has been accused of attempting to steal information on coronavirus vaccines and treatments.

South Korea‘s National Intelligence Service (NIS) announced its suspicions on Tuesday, but distanced itself from a more specific claim by a member of parliament’s intelligence committee that Pfizer was targeted.

Ha Tae-keung had told reporters that the NIS told him and other legislators during a closed-door briefing that the pharmaceutical giant had been “hacked” by the North, prompting an unusually public rebuke.

The NIS public affairs office called Mr Ha’s comments “wrong”, although he has since stood by what he said, telling the Associated Press that documents he was shown said “North Korea stole Pfizer (vaccine information) and attempted to steal (technology) from South Korean vaccine and pharmaceutical firms”.

He said the legislators were required to return the documents at the end of the briefing, and insisted that the wording about Pfizer “was so clear that I didn’t even ask about that verbally”.

But he has not elaborated on the the timing or success of the alleged attempt, and Pfizer’s Asia office has not commented on the claims.

The NIS, which has a mixed record on confirming developments in North Korea, rarely comments on North Korea-related information it provides to legislators at private briefings.

It follows attempts last year by suspected North Korean hackers to break into the systems of at least nine healthcare giants working on vaccines, such as Johnson & Johnson, Novavax, and AstraZeneca.

The NIS has previously said it had foiled attempts by its neighbour to hack into South Korean firms developing coronavirus jabs.

Digital espionage targeting health bodies, vaccine scientists and drugmakers has surged during the pandemic, as state-backed hacking groups scramble to secure the latest research and information.

North Korea has often been accused of turning to an army of hackers to fill its cash-strapped coffers amid international sanctions that ban most trade with the country.

Health experts have said the North’s hackers may be more interested in selling the stolen data than using it to develop a homegrown vaccine.

North Korea is expected to receive nearly two million doses of the AstraZeneca-Oxford COVID-19 vaccine by the first half of this year through the COVAX vaccine-sharing programme.

It has not confirmed any infections, but the NIS had said an outbreak could not be ruled out as the North had trade and people-to-people exchanges with China before closing the border in early 2020.

Leader Kim Jong Un’s wife, Ri Sol Ju, has not seen in public for more than a year and is keeping a low profile to avoid infection risks, Mr Ha said, citing the South’s intelligence.

People in the UK have been receiving Pfizer vaccines since December – after it became the first jab to be approved for use by the medicines regulator.

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