According to Al Jazeera, South Korea’s intelligence agency says North Korea attempted to steal information on coronavirus vaccines and treatments by hacking Pfizer, the US pharmaceutical firm whose highly effective COVID-19 vaccine is being given to millions of people around the world.
North Korea has been under self-imposed isolation since closing its borders in January last year and leader Kim Jong Un has repeatedly insisted that the country has had no coronavirus cases.
Seoul’s National Intelligence Service “briefed us that North Korea tried to obtain technology involving the COVID vaccine and treatment by using cyberwarfare to hack into Pfizer,” Ha Tae-keung, an opposition member of South Korea’s parliamentary intelligence panel, told the news channel. Ha did not elaborate on the timing or success of the attempt.
South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) has claimed that it also foiled attempts by its neighbor to hack into South Korean firms developing coronavirus vaccines.
Tuesday’s revelation follows attempts last year by suspected North Korean hackers to break into the systems of at least nine healthcare companies including Johnson & Johnson, Novavax, and AstraZeneca.
Pyongyang has not publicly acknowledged the theft, though North Korean diplomats usually deny any allegations of wrongdoing. Pfizer said on Tuesday that it would not comment on the matter. The American pharmaceutical giant and German firm BioNTech co-developed the first Covid-19 vaccine approved for emergency use by the World Health Organization (WHO).
According to the news channel, a United Nations report last month said that North Korea-linked hackers “continued to conduct operations against financial institutions and virtual currency exchange houses to generate revenue” in 2020 to support its nuclear and missile programmes. The total theft amounted to nearly $320 million, it said.
North Korea is expected to receive nearly two million doses of the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University by the first half of this year as part of the WHO or World Health Organization-backed COVAX vaccine-sharing programme.