North Korea ‘tried to hack Pfizer’, say South’s spies

SEOUL (AFP) – North Korean hackers tried to break into the computer systems of pharmaceutical giant Pfizer in a search for information on a coronavirus vaccine and treatment technology, South Korea’s spy agency said yesterday, according to reports.

The impoverished, nuclear-armed North has been under self-imposed isolation since closing its borders in January last year to try to protect itself from the virus that first emerged in neighbouring China and has gone on to sweep the world, killing more than two million people. Leader Kim Jong-un has repeatedly insisted that the country has had no coronavirus cases, although outside experts doubt those assertions.

And the closure has added to the pressure on its tottering economy from international sanctions imposed over its banned weapons systems, increasing the urgency for Pyongyang to find a way to deal with the disease.

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”, MP Ha Tae-keung told reporters.

North Korea is known to operate an army of thousands of well-trained hackers who have attacked firms, institutions and researchers in the South and elsewhere.

North Koreans walk on a street in Pyongyang. PHOTO: AFP

Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine, developed jointly with Germany’s BioNTech, began winning approval from authorities late last year.

It is based on technology that uses the synthetic version of a molecule called “messenger RNA” to hack into human cells and effectively turn them into vaccine-making factories.

Pfizer said it expects to potentially deliver up to two billion doses in 2021. The company’s South Korean office did not immediately respond to a request for comment by AFP.

Both it and BioNTech said last December that documents relating to their vaccine were “unlawfully accessed” during a cyberattack on a server at the European Medicines Agency, the European Union’s (EU) medicine regulator. The comments came after the Amsterdam-based EMA said it had been the victim of a hacking attack, without specifying when it took place or whether its work on COVID-19 was targetted.

The allegations come only a week after a confidential United Nations (UN) report seen by AFP said North Korea had stolen more than USD300 million worth of cryptocurrencies through cyberattacks in recent months to support its weapons programmes.