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Justice News

Department of Justice
U.S. Attorney’s Office
Southern District of California

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Thursday, May 19, 2022

Husband-and-Wife Scientists Plead Guilty to Illegally Importing Potentially Toxic Lab Chemicals and Illegally Forwarding Confidential mRNA Vaccine Research to China

Assistant U. S. Attorney Alexandra F. Foster (619) 546-6735

NEWS RELEASE SUMMARY – May 19, 2022

SAN DIEGO – Chenyan Wu and Lianchun Chen, a married couple who worked as research scientists for a major American pharmaceutical company, pleaded guilty in federal court today to criminal charges stemming from their efforts to gather confidential mRNA research from that company to advance the husband’s competing laboratory research in China.

The couple has been married since at least 1993. During his career, Wu had worked for multiple pharmaceutical companies, including the major one identified in court records only as “Company A,” where his wife also worked. In 2010, Wu moved to China, and in 2012, he opened a laboratory there, which he named TheraMab. TheraMab focused on mRNA vaccine research.

While her husband was in China, Chen remained in the United States, working for Company A in San Diego from at least 2012 through September 9, 2021. During that time, her research for Company A focused on mRNA vaccines.

According to her plea agreement, from as early as November 2013, through at least June 2018, Chen repeatedly accessed Company A computers and copied confidential Company A materials. She knew she was not allowed to copy these materials, much less provide them to an individual outside the company. Chen emailed those confidential Company A materials to her husband in China over her personal Hotmail account. These confidential Company A materials included PowerPoints and Word documents with DNA and mRNA sequencing data, marked “[Company A] Confidential” and “from [Company A] Vaccine Research & Development.” By 2013, Wu was no longer employed by Company A. He had started TheraMab, a competing laboratory in China focused on mRNA research.

In February 2021, Wu shut down TheraMab in China and attempted to move his laboratory to the United States.  He packed up its contents into five suitcases. On May 8, 2021, Wu arrived with the five suitcases at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on Delta Flight 288, originating in Shanghai, China. He planned to transit through Seattle and had a flight home to San Diego later that day.

Upon entry into the United States, Wu filled out a U.S. Customs form. He did not declare any biological or chemical items on the form, nor did he declare these items in person to the Customs officer while going through Customs Inspection.

While inspecting the defendant’s suitcases, officers discovered chemical and biological samples, medical/biological equipment, and research documentation, all of which had been undeclared and was improperly packaged. They detained the items. Initial inspection revealed about 700 to 1,000 unlabeled centrifuge tubes, which appeared to contain proteins and multiple containers of lab chemicals. Labeled samples appeared to include potentially hazardous materials. In fact, one bottle contained a warning photo with the skull and crossbones image and the words “harmful if swallowed … toxic if inhaled.”  Another bottle contained the warning statements “fatal if inhaled … harmful if swallowed.” Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials seized all five suitcases.

FBI Seattle’s Hazardous Evidence Response Team (HERT) deployed to Seattle Tacoma International Airport to help CBP inventory the items, field screen them for biological and chemical materials, and collect them as evidence. CBP transferred custody of the items to the Seattle HERT, which then repackaged the items safely and submitted them to an FBI laboratory for further analysis.

On May 18, 2021, FBI Agents interviewed Wu at his home in San Diego. Agents showed Wu a copy of the Customs form that he had filled out. Wu acknowledged that he understood the importance of those forms; he knew he needed to fill out this form accurately; and he acknowledged that he knew the proper ways to ship chemicals internationally. Wu added that China had strict rules and paperwork to ship to the United States and that was why he wanted to “take a gamble to be honest” when he brought chemicals and biological materials illegally into the United States in his luggage.

On June 25, 2021, the FBI Laboratory Division Scientific Response and Analysis Unit issued a report identifying imidazole, nickel sulfate, ethidium bromide, ammonium persulfate and chloroform in the bottles, which Wu brought with him from China. These are all identified as hazardous materials under U.S. Department of Transportation regulations and must be reported upon entry into the United States.

Chen is scheduled to be sentenced on August 11, 2022, before U.S. Magistrate Judge Andrew Schopler. Wu is scheduled to be sentenced on August 12, 2022, before U.S. District Judge Cathy Ann Bencivengo.

“These are serious computer fraud and smuggling crimes,” said U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman. “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.” Grossman thanked the prosecution team, the FBI and Customs and Border Protection for their excellent work on this case.

“The defendants used their placement and access to obtain and illegally share confidential lab research for their own benefit,” said FBI Special Agent in Charge Stacey Moy. “Their attempt to smuggle hazardous material into the United States was thankfully foiled by Customs and Border Protection upon entry. The FBI is proud to work with our federal partners and I specifically want to thank Customs and Border Protection at Seattle Tacoma International Airport, FBI Seattle’s Hazardous Evidence Response Team, and the FBI Laboratory’s Scientific Response and Analysis Unit for their valuable assistance in this case.” 

DEFENDANTS                                             Case Number 22CR00052-CAB                              

Chenyan Wu (1)                                             Age: 58                       San Diego, CA

Lianchun Chen (2)                                          Age: 51                       San Diego, CA

SUMMARY OF CHARGES

Wu - Smuggling Goods (18 U.S.C. § 545)

Maximum penalty: Twenty years in prison and $250,000 fine

Chen – Computer Fraud (18 U.S.C. § 1030(a)(2)(C))

Maximum penalty: One year in prison and $250,000 fine

AGENCY

Federal Bureau of Investigation

Homeland Security Investigations

Customs and Border Protection

Topic(s): 
Cybercrime
Press Release Number: 
CAS22-0519-Chen
Updated May 19, 2022