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North Korean hackers steal Covid-19 data from Pfizer, says South Korean lawmaker

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Ha Tae-keung said Tuesday that he and other lawmakers were informed of the attack by South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, the country’s spying agency.

It is unclear when the alleged attack took place. NIS declined to comment, and Pyongyang has not publicly acknowledged the alleged theft, though North Korean diplomats usually deny any wrongdoing allegations.

This is not the first time North Korean cybercriminals have been accused of stealing information about Covid-19 treatment. Microsoft claimed in November that cyber attacks from North Korea targeted vaccine manufacturers, sometimes “masquerading as representatives of the World Health Organization”.

Most of the attacks were blocked, Microsoft said in a statement at the time.

Reuters reported later that month that North Korean hackers were suspected of carrying out a cyber attack on British developer of the Coronavirus vaccine AstraZeneca, posing as a recruiter and approaching pharmaceutical company staff – including those working on Covid research. 19 – with false job offers.

North Korea has invested heavily in recent years in cyber attack capabilities, allowing the poor country to make money, attack enemies, and pursue the advantages of the Kim Jong Un regime at relatively minimal cost.

The United Nations has accused Pyongyang hackers of stealing $ 316.4 million worth of virtual assets between 2019 and November 2020, money that is likely to go towards financing the country’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs in violation of international law.

It appears that the Kim regime has diverted its cyber capabilities towards its efforts to prevent pandemics and provide a vaccine.

COVAX, an initiative to ensure equal global access to Covid-19 vaccines, said it would provide North Korea with nearly 2 million doses of the AstraZeneca-Oxford coronavirus. But North Korea is likely to do everything it can to get a vaccine for its people, even if it means using theft.

“North Koreans are pursuing a comprehensive approach,” said Dr. Kee B. Park, director of the Korea Health Policy Project at Harvard Medical School and the North Korean Program at the American Medical Association of America. “They are trying everything – producing their own, perhaps through GAVI (an organization involved in COVAX), perhaps through bilateral channels.”

North Korea’s top priority since the outbreak of the pandemic last year has been to keep the coronavirus from overloading its dilapidated healthcare infrastructure. Pyongyang voluntarily cut off most of its sparse ties to the outside world in 2020 to prevent an influx of Covid-19, including cutting off almost all trade with Beijing – an economic lifeline North Korea should keep her people from starvation.

The tightening of trade hit the economy, but from a public health standpoint it seems to have worked. It does not appear that North Korea has suffered through major Covid-19 explosions within its borders. North Korea says it has not registered a single case of Covid-19, a claim most experts see as suspect. The country has tested only part of its population and shares a border with China, where the pandemic began.

Still, Kim, who is overweight and is said to live a very unhealthy lifestyle, has been confident enough to appear in public without a mask on many occasions during the pandemic.

He and his wife, Ri Sol Ju, were photographed attending a maskless concert on Tuesday. It was the first time Ri appeared in the North Korean state media in more than a year. Ha, the South Korean lawmaker, said South Korean intelligence believed it was being lowered as a precaution due to the pandemic.

The usefulness of data

It is not clear exactly what data North Korea allegedly stole from Pfizer or what North Korean scientists can do with it. North Korea said in July it would try to develop its own coronavirus vaccine, but few believed Pyongyang had the scientific resources or finances to pursue an effort that ended up costing billions of dollars.

Park, from Harvard Medical School, said that during a visit to North Korea he saw medical professionals making presentations demonstrating knowledge and technology to manipulate and unite genes. However, the country may not be able to take the next essential steps in developing vaccines, he said.

With so few potential cases within North Korea, there are probably not enough infected people domestically to properly test the efficacy of a home-made vaccine, Park said. Conducting trials abroad, as China did, is likely to be too costly and could break United Nations sanctions banning joint ventures with the Kim regime.

Then there is the question of whether North Korea has the ability to produce a vaccine on such a large scale. Pyongyang usually relies on international donors for other vaccines, like the one to treat tuberculosis.

Finally, it is unclear how useful the Pfizer data would be for North Korea. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was the first vaccine ever approved for emergency use to use MRNA technology, something only a handful of pharmaceutical companies have been able to achieve. Those who have achieved this have spent billions doing so, according to Park.

Even if North Korea could develop one RNA vaccine like Pfizer, it is unlikely that the country will have special equipment to transport and store it. The Pfizer vaccine should be kept at ultra-cold temperatures of about minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 75 degrees Celsius) in order to keep the fragile RNA material safe.

“MARN is an advanced technology,” Park said. “Whether or not North Korea has that kind of technology, I do not know, but … I would be really surprised if they would be able to do it. Something is something that even many developed countries are struggling with.” .

CNN’s Will Ripley, Paula Hancocks and Amanda Sealy contributed to this report.

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