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Some Japanese research institutions developing coronavirus vaccines have been hit by cyberattacks, apparently from China, in what are believed to be the first cases of their kind in the country, a U.S. information security firm said Monday.

Amid an intensifying race to develop vaccines against COVID-19, those bodies have been targeted by attacks since April but no reports of information leaks have been made, according to CrowdStrike.

The government’s National Center of Incident Readiness and Strategy for Cybersecurity has urged drugmakers and research organizations to raise alert levels against such attempts to steal confidential information.

The U.S. firm did not disclose the names of the targeted institutions, but said it suspects the attacks have been made by a Chinese hacker group, based on the techniques employed.

The attacks involved sending emails attached with electronic files, which seemed to be related to the new virus but contained computer viruses, according to the company.

Scott Jarkoff, CrowdStrike’s director responsible for the Asia-Pacific region, pointed out that espionage attempts led by governments have been intensifying as they seek to develop vaccines against COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, ahead of other countries.

Around 190 vaccine projects were in progress as of late September, some of which have entered the final stages of trials, according to data from the World Health Organization and other bodies.

A People's Liberation Army complex in Shanghai that researchers at Crowdstrike, a security company, believe is the headquarters for a group of Chinese military hackers | THE NEW YORK TIMES
A People’s Liberation Army complex in Shanghai that researchers at Crowdstrike, a security company, believe is the headquarters for a group of Chinese military hackers | THE NEW YORK TIMES

In Japan, the University of Tokyo, Osaka University and the National Institute of Infectious Diseases, among others, have joined the race.

The government-sponsored Japan Agency for Medical Research and Development, or AMED, which allocates state funds to support medical research, has adopted 20 vaccine projects conducted by universities and private companies.

Major pharmaceutical firms, including Takeda Pharmaceutical Co. and Daiichi Sankyo Co., have been selected for the agency’s support scheme for COVID-19 vaccine development, which grants up to ¥10 billion to each project, according to AMED.

But it is still unknown when the first domestically developed COVID-19 vaccine will see widespread use, while some foreign countries aim to introduce their own by the end of the year.

In July, the United States, Britain and Canada alleged in a report that hackers linked to a Russian intelligence service had tried to steal information from researchers working to produce coronavirus vaccines in their countries, which Moscow denied.

Also that month, the U.S. Justice Department indicted two Chinese nationals, who it believed were working on behalf of the Chinese government, for hacking into the computer systems of hundreds of companies, governments and nongovernmental organizations to steal COVID-19 research and other information.

Beijing denied involvement in the hacking.

Masakatsu Morii, a professor versed in information security at Kobe University, said it is a matter of course for information on COVID-19 vaccines to be subject to cyberattacks, as hacker groups tend to steal confidential information that is at the center of attention.

“The Japanese government should provide sufficient support for security, in addition to vaccine development, as it is projected to take a few years before (coronavirus vaccines) will be supplied in a stable manner,” Morii said.

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