BGI Group, a Chinese gene company, is collecting genetic data through prenatal tests from women in more than 50 countries for research on the traits of populations, raising concern that such a large DNA database could give China a technological advantage and the strategic edge to dominate global pharmaceuticals, according to a recent news report.
Analysts expressed unease with the developments exclusively reported by Reuters at BGI Group’s collection of genetic data via its NiPT prenatal test with the brand name NIFTY (Non-Invasive Fetal TrisomY). The tests, sold in more than 50 countries, can detect abnormalities such as Down syndrome in the fetus by capturing DNA from the placenta in the bloodstream about 10 weeks into a pregnancy.
The tests are sold in 52 countries, including Germany, Spain and Denmark, as well as in Britain, Canada, Australia, Thailand, India and Pakistan, according to Reuters. They are not sold in the US, where “government advisers warned in March that the genomic data BGI is amassing and analyzing with artificial intelligence could give China a path to economic and military advantage,” Reuters reported.
China’s genomic sequencing industry already boasts several major, globally active firms. The largest is BGI, formerly Beijing Genomics Institute, founded in 1999 to contribute to the Human Genome Project. WuXi NextCODE (now Genuity Science), another sequencer that also runs an online data platform, raised $200 million in its third round of VC fundraising in November 2018 and was the first sequencing facility in China to receive accreditation from the College of American Pathologists to perform molecular diagnostic and genetic testing.
Both BGI and Genuity Science have benefited from acquisitions of U.S. firms and are licensed to perform testing in the US. China’s 13th Five-Year Plan discusses precision medicine in conjunction with other key technology areas such as semiconductors, robotics, and AI rather than in the context of healthcare policy, suggesting Beijing also views it as an industrial policy priority with potential means to help China’s healthcare sector move up the value chain. BGI’s role in supplying COVID-19 testing kits to the world is likely to reinforce Beijing’s view of precision medicine as a massive commercial opportunity in addition to a healthcare priority. Collecting the biggest and most diverse set of human genomes could propel China to dominate global pharmaceuticals, and also potentially lead to genetically enhanced soldiers, or engineered pathogens to target the U.S. population or food supply, the U.S. advisers said, according to Reuters.
Reggie Littlejohn, founder and president of the rights group Women’s Rights Without Frontiers, said that due to China’s strategy of fusing military and civilian interests, “any Chinese company can be forced by the government to supply its information to the military.” China sells the prenatal tests “a good product at a lower cost because they’re able to do that,” Littlejohn said. “But what people don’t realize is that when they get these lower cost genetic tests,” the collected information goes to the Chinese military,” she said. The Reuters report said the company has “worked with the Chinese military to improve ‘population quality’ and on genetic research to combat hearing loss and altitude sickness in soldiers.” China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs dismissed the report, telling Reuters it was “a groundless accusation and smear campaign.” Dan Harris, an international lawyer and author at the China Law Blog, said that he believes democratic entities, such as the US, Japan, Korea, Australia and the European Union, are going to realize they “need to enact special laws to deal with China and China’s hoovering of data.”
Crystal Grant, a data scientist and molecular biologist with a Ph.D. in genetics who is a technology fellow in the Speech, Privacy and Technology Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, said that this accumulation of DNA will challenge genomic policy worldwide. By using what she described as “this massive amount of information” and supercomputers “to crack those codes is going to be a threat to genomic policy everywhere,” she said. Huang Yanzhong, a senior fellow for global health at the Council of Foreign Relations, told VOA Mandarin in a TV interview in February that rapid advances in genetics and biotechnology have highlighted the need for the international community to step up regulations to prevent data abuse. “It is not just China. The progress in the legal framework in this area is lagging behind,” Huang said. “It’s vital for the international community to sit down and work out a framework.”
Yet researchers worldwide in the academic, private and government sectors, are refining genetic engineering techniques and knowledge. China’s interest in the field is not new. In 2018, researcher He Jiankui announced that he had produced twins genetically altered to resist HIV using a relatively new, accurate and very fast American-developed genetic editing technique known by its acronym, CRISPR. In 2019, a Chinese court found He guilty of using “illegal medical practices” and sentenced He to three years in prison.
BGI emphasized that it developed the NIPT test alone, not in a partnership with China’s military. Reuters interviewed four women who have used the BGI’s prenatal tests in Poland, Spain and Thailand. They all signed consent forms stating that their genetic data would be stored and used for research, yet they are not aware that their genetic information could end up in China. Harris, the lawyer, said that most of the time, people didn’t know what they were signing. “Maybe the sign off says that it will be limited to BGI and BGI access, though XYZ, a Chinese military company, might be one of BGI’s subsidiaries,” which would mean that the consent form allowed BGI to transfer a woman’s genetic information to the Chinese military, he said. One of the women, a 32-year-old office administrator from Poland, told Reuters that she would have chosen a different test had she known that her data might end up in China being used for research involving military applications. U.S. federal authorities have been watching BGI’s record on data collection.
Bill Evanina, former director of the US National Counterintelligence and Security Center, told the CBS-TV newsmagazine 60 Minutes in January that he was extremely concerned when BGI offered to provide COVID-19 testing kits to several U.S. states last year. “Knowing that BGI is a Chinese company, do we understand where that data’s going?” Evanina asked. They are the ultimate company that shows connectivity to both the communist state as well as the military apparatus.”
Edward You, supervisory special agent with the FBI and a former biochemist, told 60 Minutes in the same January episode that Beijing authorities are betting that accumulating large amounts of human DNA will prove to be a successful strategy. “They are building out a huge domestic database,” You said. “And if they are now able to supplement that with data from all around the world, it’s all about who gets the largest, most diverse data set. And so, the ticking time bomb is that once they’re able to achieve true artificial intelligence, then they’re off to the races in what they can do with that data.”
Source: Reuters, US Government