Husband-and-Wife Scientists Plead Guilty to Illegally Importing Potentially Toxic Lab Chemicals and Illegally Forwarding Confidential mRNA Vaccine Research to China
SAN DIEGO – What appeared to be a married couple doing chemical and medical research in both the U.S. and China – illegalities abounded. Customs and Border Protection stopped poisonous chemicals being transported and unreported via multiple suitcases, and the FBI joined in to thoroughly delve into not only the toxicity of the chemicals, but the twists and turns of deceptions perpetrated over the internet as well.
The Department of Justice, U.S. Attorneys Office announced that the husband-and-wife scientists, Chenyan Wu (58) and Lianchun Chen (51), had pleaded guilty to Illegally Importing Potentially Toxic Lab Chemicals and Illegally Forwarding Confidential mRNA Vaccine Research to China.
“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 married couple from San Diego, who’d worked as research scientists for a major American pharmaceutical company, pleaded guilty in federal court on May 19th 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.
Chen’s husband was in China, as she remained in the United States, working for an anonymous company in San Diego from at least 2012 through September 9, 2021, with a research focus mRNA vaccines. But, she admitted to repeatedly accessing company computers and copied confidential materials – to provide them to someone outside the company (her husband.)
“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,” said the DOJ, “nor did he declare these items in person to the Customs officer while going through Customs Inspection.”
An inspection of the defendant’s suitcases, and revealed chemical and biological samples, medical/biological equipment, and research documentation, (all of which had been undeclared and was improperly packaged), and which were detained. Initial inspection revealed about 700 to 1,000 unlabeled centrifuge tubes, which appeared to contain proteins and multiple containers of lab chemicals – with labeled samples appearing to include potentially hazardous materials. In fact one said “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.
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.
The charges include for Wu – Smuggling Goods (18 U.S.C. § 545) with a Maximum penalty: Twenty years in prison and $250,000 fine. For Chen – Computer Fraud (18 U.S.C. § 1030(a)(2)(C)) with a Maximum penalty: One year in prison and $250,000 fine “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.”