North Korean hackers stole technology related to Covid-19 vaccines and treatments from US drugmaker Pfizer, according to a South Korean lawmaker.
Ha Tae-keung said Tuesday that he and other lawmakers were briefed on the hack by South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, the country’s spy agency.
It is not clear when the suspected assault occurred. The NIS refused to comment, and Pyongyang did not publicly recognize the alleged theft, although North Korean diplomats generally deny any allegations of wrongdoing.
On Tuesday, Pfizer said it would not comment on the matter. The first Covid-19 vaccine approved for emergency use by the World Health Organization was co-developed by the American pharmaceutical giant and the German firm BioNTech (WHO).
This is not the first time that North Korean cybercriminals have been accused of stealing Covid-19 treatment-related information. In November, Microsoft reported that cyberattacks from North Korea targeted vaccine manufacturers, often “masquerading as representatives of the World Health Organization.”
The majority of the attacks, Microsoft said in a statement at the time, were blocked.
Later that month, Reuters announced that North Korean hackers were suspected of having carried out a cyberattack against AstraZeneca, a British coronavirus vaccine manufacturer, posing as recruiters and approaching the staff of the pharmaceutical company with fake job offers, including those working on Covid-19 research.
North Korea has invested heavily in recent years in offensive cyber capabilities, allowing the impoverished nation to earn money, strike enemies and follow goals of the Kim Jong Un regime at a relatively minimal cost.
Between 2019 and November 2020, the United Nations accused Pyongyang’s hackers of stealing virtual assets worth $316.4 million, money that possibly went towards financing the country’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs in violation of international law.
The Kim regime seems to have shifted its cyber resources into its efforts to avoid pandemics and secure a vaccine.
COVAX, an initiative to provide equitable global access to Covid-19 vaccines, said it would provide nearly 2 million AstraZeneca-Oxford coronavirus doses to North Korea. But North Korea is probably doing all it can to get a vaccine for its people, even if it means stealing.
The utility of the data
What knowledge North Korea allegedly stole from Pfizer or what North Korean scientists could do with it is not immediately clear. North Korea announced it would try to create its own coronavirus vaccine in July, but few assumed that Pyongyang had the technical expertise or finances to undertake an initiative that ended up costing billions of dollars.
Park, from Harvard Medical School, said he saw medical professionals give presentations on a visit to North Korea demonstrating the know-how and technology for manipulating and splicing genes. The nation may not, however, be able to carry out the critical next steps in the production of vaccines, he said.
With too few cases likely to occur within North Korea, there are possibly not enough infected individuals within the country to assess the effectiveness of a domestic vaccine properly, Park said. It would probably be too costly to hold trials overseas, as China did, and could breach United Nations sanctions barring joint projects with the Kim regime.
Then there is the issue of whether North Korea has the potential to develop such a large-scale vaccine. For other vaccinations, such as the one to treat tuberculosis, Pyongyang usually depends on foreign donors.
Finally, how useful the Pfizer information will be for North Korea is unclear. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was the first vaccine ever approved for emergency use using mRNA technology, something that could only be done by a handful of pharmaceutical firms. According to Park, those who have done this have spent billions doing so.
Even though North Korea could produce a Pfizer-like mRNA vaccine, the country is unlikely to have special equipment to transport and store it. To keep the delicate MRNA content healthy, the Pfizer vaccine must be kept at ultra-cold temperatures of approximately minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 75 degrees Celsius).
“MRNA is a cutting edge technology,” Park said. “Whether or not North Korea has that type of technology, I don’t know, but … I’d be really surprised if they’d be able to do that. It’s something that even a lot of the developed countries are struggling with.”