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UPDATE 3-N. Korean hackers tried to steal Pfizer vaccine know-how, lawmaker says

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(Adds lawmaker attribution, quote; paragraphs 1,4)

By Sangmi Cha and Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL, Feb 16 (Reuters) - South Korea's intelligence agencyhas said North Korea attempted to steal information oncoronavirus vaccines and treatments by hacking Pfizer Inc, a lawmaker briefed by the agency said on Tuesday.

Digital espionage targeting health bodies, vaccinescientists and drugmakers has surged during the COVID-19pandemic as state-backed hacking groups scramble to secure thelatest research and information about the outbreak.

Ha Tae-keung, an opposition member of the parliamentaryintelligence panel, said the pharmaceutical giant was amongthose hacked in the bid to steal information on vaccines andtreatments.

"There were attempts to steal COVID vaccine and treatmenttechnology during cyber attacks and Pfizer was hacked," he said.

Speaking to reporters after a briefing by the agency, Ha didnot elaborate on the timing or success of the attempt, atranscript of his remarks reviewed by Reuters showed.

Ha's office confirmed his comments but gave no details.

Pfizer's offices in Asia and South Korea did not have animmediate comment.

Tuesday's news comes after attempts last year by suspectedNorth Korean hackers to break into the systems of at least ninehealthcare firms, such as Johnson & Johnson, Novavax Inc, and AstraZeneca.

South Korea's National Intelligence Service (NIS) has saidit had foiled attempts by its neighbour to hack into SouthKorean firms developing coronavirus vaccines.

North Korea is often accused of turning to an army ofhackers to fill its cash-strapped coffers amid internationalsanctions that ban most international trade with it.

Health experts have said the North's hackers may be moreinterested in selling the stolen data than using it to develop ahomegrown vaccine.

North Korea is expected to receive nearly 2 million doses ofthe AstraZeneca-Oxford COVID-19 vaccine by the first half ofthis year through the COVAX vaccine-sharing programme.

It has not confirmed any infections, but the NIS had said anoutbreak could not be ruled out as the North had trade andpeople-to-people exchanges with China before closing the borderin early 2020.

Leader Kim Jong Un's wife, Ri Sol Ju, not seen in public formore than a year, is keeping a low profile to avoid infectionrisks, Ha said, citing the South's intelligence.(Reporting by Sangmi Cha and Hyonhee Shin; Additional reportingby Josh Smith; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and ClarenceFernandez)