Customs authorities discovered chemical and biological samples, as well as medical equipment and research documents, in the possession of a Chinese couple who later pleaded guilty to stealing mRNA vaccine information and smuggling biological materials to China.
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According to a statement provided by the Justice Department (DOJ), two scientists pleaded guilty to illegally importing potentially dangerous lab chemicals and sending confidential mRNA vaccine research to China.
Wu Chenyan and Chen Lianchun, husband and wife research scientists for a major American pharmaceutical company, pleaded guilty on May 19 to charges related to their efforts to steal confidential mRNA research from that company and use it to advance the husband’s own competing laboratory research in China.
Throughout his career, Wu worked for a number of pharmaceutical companies, including one that isn’t named in court records. Chen was also employed by the same company. Wu relocated to China in 2010 and established an mRNA vaccine research facility there in 2012.
From 2012 until 2021, Chen remained in the United States and worked for the company while Wu was in China. Her research for the company at the time was also centered on mRNA vaccines.
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Between 2013 and 2018, Chen routinely accessed the company’s computers and copied confidential documents, according to the DOJ. She then used her personal email account to send the materials to her husband in China. PowerPoints and Word documents with DNA and mRNA sequencing data, as well as secret vaccine research and development information, were among the materials.
In a statement, FBI Special Agent in Charge Stacey Moy said, “The defendants used their placement and access to obtain and illegally share confidential lab research for their own benefit.”
Wu first came to the FBI’s attention in 2019, when authorities discovered a PowerPoint with his name on it while investigating a Chinese man guilty of breaching US export controls.
Wu shut down his lab in China in 2021 and attempted to relocate it to the United States. He flew to America with its belongings packed into five suitcases. He failed to declare any biological materials on his customs form or to the customs officer throughout the inspection process.
Nonetheless, customs authorities discovered chemical and biological samples, as well as medical equipment and research documents, in Wu’s possession, all of which had been improperly packaged.
Wu was transporting approximately 1,000 unmarked centrifuge tubes with proteins and other containers of unknown compounds, according to the DOJ. Some of the samples were even marked as dangerous, with a skull and crossbones image and the words “harmful if swallowed… toxic if inhaled” on one.
U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman stated, “These are serious computer fraud and smuggling crimes.” “One defendant failed to protect her employer’s confidential and important research, and instead used it to her and her husband’s advantage.”
“Compounding the harm, the other defendant put travelers in harm’s way by illegally transporting his laboratory’s hazardous chemicals back to the United States.”
The story is only the latest chapter in the Department of Justice’s continuous battle to stem the tide of China-related economic espionage and intellectual property theft cases. According to the FBI, there are more than 2,000 active cases involving Chinese attempts to steal crucial technology and information from the US.
The department was involved in a Trump-era operation known as the China Initiative to combat such cases, but the Biden administration canceled it after racial bias charges. The agency clarified that an internal examination revealed no evidence of bias, but that the initiative had to be terminated due to its “harmful perception.”
Both Wu and Chen are set to be sentenced in August of this year.