Did North Korea hack US drugmaker Pfizer and steal data on Covid-19 vaccines and treatment research? The answer, at least on Wednesday in South Korea, depends on who you ask.
South Korean lawmaker Ha Tae-keung told reporters Tuesday that he and other members of the National Assembly Intelligence committee were briefed by the country’s spy agency about the alleged attack. Ha’s office confirmed the remarks to CNN on Wednesday.
Later that morning, the National Intelligence Service (NIS) put out a statement rebutting Ha’s claims. The agency said it “reported general incidences of hacking attempts” of coronavirus vaccine developers to Ha and the committee, but “did not specify any company names including Pfizer.”
“The National Intelligence Service did not say that Pfizer was hacked by North Korea in a Q and A session of the briefing yesterday for the National Assembly Intelligence Committee,” the NIS statement read.
Ha, who is a member of the main opposition party, quickly shot back on Facebook. He said that the briefing documents shared with lawmakers named Pfizer, but the NIS collected the document at the end of the meeting, likely for security purposes.
Ha said he took notes to remember the document’s key points. He posted a copy of the notes online, which included a reference to Pfizer and “vaccine data hacking.”
“I wouldn’t have been able to take notes about Pfizer if that wasn’t mentioned in the document,” he said.
It is unclear when the alleged attack happened.
Pyongyang has not publicly acknowledged the alleged theft, though North Korean diplomats usually deny any allegations of wrongdoing.
Pfizer said Tuesday 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).
North Korea hacking accusations
This is not the first time North Korean cybercriminals have been accused of stealing information related to treating Covid-19. Microsoft claimed in November that cyberattacks from North Korea targeted vaccine makers, sometimes “masquerading as World Health Organization representatives.”
The majority of the attacks were blocked, Microsoft said in a statement at the time.
Reuters reported later that month that North Korean hackers were suspected to have carried out a cyberattack against British coronavirus vaccine developer AstraZeneca, posing as recruiters and approaching the pharmaceutical company’s staff – including those working on Covid-19 research – with fake job offers.
North Korea has invested heavily in recent years in offensive cyber capabilities, allowing the impoverished country to earn money, attack enemies and pursue priorities of the Kim Jong Un regime at relatively minimal expense.
The United Nations accused Pyongyang’s hackers of stealing virtual assets worth $316.4 million dollars between 2019 and November 2020, money that likely went towards funding the country’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs in violation of international law.
It appears the Kim regime has diverted its cyber capabilities toward its pandemic prevention efforts and securing a vaccine.
COVAX, an initiative to provide equitable global access to Covid-19 vaccines, said it will provide North Korea with nearly 2 million doses of the AstraZeneca-Oxford coronavirus. But North Korea is likely doing everything it can to get a vaccine to its people, even if it means resorting to stealing.
“The North Koreans are taking a comprehensive approach,” said Dr. Kee B. Park, the director of Korea Health Policy Project at Harvard Medical School and the North Korea Program at the Korean American Medical Association. “They’re trying everything – manufacturing their own, maybe through GAVI (an organization involved in COVAX), maybe through bilateral channels.”
North Korea’s top priority since the pandemic emerged last year has been keeping the coronavirus from overwhelming its dilapidated healthcare infrastructure. Pyongyang voluntarily severed most of its scant ties with 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 needs to keep its people from going hungry.
The clampdown on trade pummeled the economy, but from a public health standpoint it appears to have worked. It does not appear that North Korea has suffered through major outbreaks of Covid-19 within its borders. North Korea says it has not recorded a single case of Covid-19, a claim most experts view as suspect. The country has tested only a fraction of its population and has a shared border with China, where the pandemic began.
Still, Kim, who is overweight and reportedly lives a very unhealthy lifestyle, has been confident enough to appear in public without a mask on multiple occasions during the pandemic.
He and his wife, Ri Sol Ju, were photographed attending a concert maskless on Tuesday. It was the first time Ri had appeared in North Korean state media in more than a year. Ha, the South Korean lawmaker, said that South Korean intelligence believed she was laying low as a precaution due to the pandemic.
The utility of the data
It’s not exactly clear what data North Korea allegedly stole from Pfizer or what North Korean scientists can do with it. North Korea said in July it would attempt to develop its own coronavirus vaccine, but few believed Pyongyang had the scientific resources or finances to pursue an endeavor that ended up costing billions of dollars.
Park, from Harvard Medical School, said that on a visit to North Korea he saw medical professionals give presentations demonstrating the know-how and the technology to manipulate and splice genes. However, the country may not be able to conduct the crucial next steps in vaccine development, he said.
With so few cases likely inside North Korea, there are probably not enough infected people within the country to properly test the efficacy of a domestic-made vaccine, Park said. Conducting trials abroad, like China did, would likely be too expensive and could break United Nations sanctions barring joint ventures with the Kim regime.
Then there’s the question of whether North Korea has the ability to manufacture a vaccine on such a large scale. Pyongyang typically relies on international donors for other vaccines, like the one to treat tuberculosis.
Finally, it’s unclear just how useful the Pfizer data would be to North Korea. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was the first vaccine ever approved for emergency use to employ MRNA technology, something only a handful of pharmaceutical companies have been able to achieve. Those which have achieved this have spent billions doing so, according to Park.
Even if North Korea could develop an MRNA vaccine like Pfizer’s, it’s unlikely the country has the special equipment to transport and store it. The Pfizer vaccine must be kept at ultracold temperatures of about minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 75 degrees Celsius), in order to keep the fragile MRNA material safe.
“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.”
CNN’s Will Ripley, Paula Hancocks and Amanda Sealy contributed to this report.