A married couple from San Diego who worked as research scientists for a major American American pharmaceutical company pleaded guilty in federal court on Thursday to stealing confidential vaccine research from the company and smuggling hazardous materials into the United States.

Chenyan Wu, 58, and Lianchun Chen,51, have been married since at least 1993, and had both worked at some point at what court records identify as “Company A”. During his career, Wu had worked for multiple pharmaceutical companies, but moved to China in 2010 and opened a laboratory in 2012 named TheraMab, that focused on mRNA vaccine research. 

Chen remained in the United States working for Company A from at least 2012 through Sept. 9, 2021, according to a statement from the U.S. Attorney General’s office. Her research for Company A focused on mRNA vaccines. 

From as early as November 2013, through at least June 2018, Chen repeatedly accessed Company A computers and copied confidential Company A materials, according to her plea agreement. Prosecutors said she knew she was not allowed to copy the materials, much less provide them to an individual outside the company. 

Prosecutors alleged Chen emailed confidential Company A materials to Wu through her personal Hotmail account. The materials consisted of PowerPoints and Word documents with DNA and mRNA sequencing data. 

Wu was no longer employed at Compan A by 2013 and had begun TheraMab. He attempted to move his laboratory to the U.S. in February 2021, subsequently shutting down operations in China. 

With five suitcases filled with TheraMab contents, Wu arrived at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on May 8, 2021, originating in Shanghai, China, with plans to fly to San Diego later that day. 

Wu failed to declare any biological or chemical items upon entry to the U.S. and later told investigators that China's strict rules for international shipping led him to “take a gamble, to be honest'' in his bid to smuggle the materials in his suitcases, according to prosecutors.

Customs officers discovered 700 to 1,000 unlabeled centrifuge tubes with chemical and biological samples, medical/biological equipment, and research documentation that had been undeclared and improperly packaged.

The FBI Laboratory Division Scientific Response and Analysis Unit issued a report on June 25, 2021, identifying imidazole, nickel sulfate, ethidium bromide, ammonium persulfate, and chloroform in the bottles. 

“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.

Wu pleaded guilty to a federal smuggling charge, while Chen pleaded guilty to computer fraud. The pair will receive sentencing in August. 

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