Federal courthouse
Federal courthouse in downtown San Diego. Photo by Chris Stone

A married San Diego couple who worked as scientists for a pharmaceutical company pleaded guilty Thursday to stealing confidential vaccine research and smuggling hazardous materials.

Chenyan Wu, 58, and Lianchun Chen, 51, both worked at one time for a firm identified only as “Company A” by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Prosecutors said Wu moved to China and opened a lab there in 2010, while his wife remained in San Diego to work for Company A.

Prosecutors say Chen “repeatedly accessed Company A computers and copied confidential Company A materials” over the course of almost five years, then emailed those materials to her husband in order to help his competing laboratory in China, called TheraMab.

Wu attempted to shift TheraMab’s laboratory to the U.S. last year, but was stopped by customs officials in Seattle with chemical and biological samples in his luggage. Some of the items that Wu brought from China were identified as hazardous materials that must be reported upon entry into the U.S., the prosecutors said.

Wu did not declare any of the items on a U.S. Customs form 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.

Wu pleaded guilty to a federal smuggling charge, while Chen pleaded guilty to computer fraud.

Both are scheduled to be sentenced in August.

“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.”

– City News Service