• 6 August, 2020 12:37 pm


Special Report: COVID opens new doors for China’s gene giant

SYDNEY August 6 (Reuters):

As countries scramble to test for the novel coronavirus, a Chinese company has become a go-to name around the world.

BGI Group, described in one 2015 study as “Goliath” in the fast-growing field of genomics research, is using an opening created by the pandemic to expand its footprint globally. In the past six months, it says it has sold 35 million rapid COVID-19 testing kits to 180 countries and built 58 labs in 18 countries. Some of the equipment has been donated by BGI’s philanthropic arm, promoted by China’s embassies in an extension of China’s virus diplomacy.

But as well as test kits, the company is distributing gene-sequencing technology that U.S. security officials say could threaten national security. This is a sensitive area globally. Sequencers are used to analyse genetic material, and can unlock powerful personal information.

In science journals and online, BGI is calling on international health researchers to send in virus data generated on its equipment, as well as patient samples that have tested positive for COVID-19, to be shared publicly via China’s government-funded National GeneBank.

As BGI’s foothold in the gene-sequencing industry grows, a senior U.S. administration official told Reuters on condition of anonymity, so does the risk China could harvest genetic information from populations around the world.

Underpinning BGI’s global expansion are the Shenzhen-based company’s links to the Chinese government, which include its role as operator of China’s national genetic database and its research in government-affiliated key laboratories. BGI, which says in stock market filings it aims to help the ruling Communist Party achieve its goal to “seize the commanding heights of international biotechnology competition,” is coming under increasing scrutiny in an escalating Cold War between Washington and Beijing, Reuters found.

Reuters found no evidence that BGI is violating patient privacy protections where these apply. Responding to questions from the news agency, BGI said it is not owned by the Chinese government.

“Under the current political climate, the fear raised about the use of BGI’s technology is unfounded and misleading,” BGI said in a statement to Reuters. “BGI’s mission is, and has always been, using genomics to benefit people’s health and wellbeing.”

China’s foreign ministry said in a statement the country has been open, transparent and responsible in “sharing information and experience with the international community, providing supplies to relevant countries” including COVID-19 test kits and protective equipment, and helping countries improve epidemic control.

The extent of BGI’s endeavours to dominate an industry with geostrategic value, as well as of its efforts to gather genetic data from around the world, was pieced together by Reuters from public documents and dozens of interviews with scientists, researchers and health officials.

Some U.S. officials warn of a dual risk to national security from BGI: Sensitive genetic information about U.S. citizens may fall into foreign hands, and American companies stand to lose their innovative edge in the field of genomics to Chinese firms.

Earlier this year, the U.S. National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC) published practical tips for health services to avoid “potential threats posed by foreign powers” in connection with COVID-19 tests. Other officials draw parallels between BGI and Huawei Technologies Co., the Chinese telecommunications titan whose 5G technology the United States says could be used to capture personal data that Beijing could exploit. Huawei has said it would refuse to cooperate with spying.

Sharing data is essential for medical research. But in the case of genetic data, officials and scientists say the risks are that it could be weaponized.

Individuals can be identified by a portion of their DNA, and some researchers have found genetic links with behaviours such as depressive disorder. A hostile actor could use such data to target individuals for surveillance, extortion or manipulation, according to a comprehensive report prepared for the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence by science and medical experts in January, which added that such associations are not yet well understood.

Knowledge of the genetic makeup of national decision-makers or the military, and their propensity to act in certain ways, could be used by adversarial intelligence agencies as a mechanism of influence, said the report, “Safeguarding the Bioeconomy,” from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. Genetic data could reveal a U.S. vulnerability to specific diseases, it added.

As companies race to develop and patent biological drugs for the global market, the ethnic diversity of the U.S. population makes U.S. genomic data more valuable than data from countries with homogeneous populations, the report said. That’s because the more varied the data, the bigger the advantage in identifying genetic disease. The report raised the possibility BGI could amass DNA sequence information from U.S. genetic samples that would give it an “asymmetrical” advantage over U.S. firms.

Genetic information, including family medical history, “is of enormous value and can be exploited by foreign regimes for a range of security and economic purposes,” Bill Evanina, director of the NCSC, told Reuters in response to questions about Chinese genomic companies.

BGI and Huawei have said they work together. In a video that is no longer available on Huawei’s site, a BGI executive said it processes “staggering volumes of data” from its gene sequencers, stored on Huawei’s high-powered systems. In response to questions from Reuters about whether this information could be shared with China’s government, Huawei said only users of its technology can define who to share data with. “Huawei’s Cloud technology and cloud computing services are secure and compliant with international security standards,” it said, adding it complies with all laws.

BGI said it does not have access to patient data from its diagnostic tests.

The company said it is conducting scientific research on the genomes, or genetic blueprints, of the virus and patients with COVID-19. But it said this research is separate from the tests it provides to other nations to diagnose COVID-19.

Asked about China’s genomics ambitions, a U.S. State Department spokesman said: “We believe countries need to be able to trust that vendors will not threaten national security, privacy or intellectual property. Trust cannot exist where a company is subject to an authoritarian government, like the People’s Republic of China, that lacks prohibitions on the misuse of data.”

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